Proprietary estoppel in relationship cases: assurance or not?

Cook v Thomas ([2010] EWCA Civ 227) concerned a proprietary estoppel claim by Mr and Mrs Thomas against Mrs. Cook (Mrs Thomas’ mother). Mrs. Cook owned a farmhouse with a small amount of farmland and outbuildings (‘the property’). Mrs. Cook (‘the claimant’) allowed Mr and Mrs Thomas (‘the defendants’) to place the mobile home they lived in on the property. When that was damaged by a storm, the claimant allowed the defendants to move into the farmhouse. The defendants repaired and improved the farmhouse and farmed the land. The parties fell out and the claimant sought to evict the defendants.

The defendants relied on proprietary estoppel. They alleged that they had been given assurances that: (i) they would be allowed to remain in the property during the claimant’s life; and (ii) they would inherit the property on her death. They claimed that their work on the property was carried out in reliance on these assurances.

The first instance judge found that the claimant had given the defendants permission to live in the property and to farm the land. She had not, however, given them any assurance that they had an irrevocable permission to remain. The defendants appealed and the Court of Appeal had to consider whether the first instance judge had been entitled to reach his conclusion that there was no assurance.

The Court of Appeal (Lloyd LJ giving the principal judgment) found that the first instance judge had been entitled to decide in favour of the claimant. The evidence pointed to ‘a limited and informal family arrangement’ ([63]).

The claimant told the defendants that ‘you know this is all going to be yours when I am gone anyway’ ([72]). This did not give rise to a proprietary estoppel: (a) because it was not taken as an assurance but as an indicator of current intent; and (b) because there was no detrimental reliance upon it ([72]).

There was no room to make use of the Greasley v Cook presumption of reliance: ‘In the present case, there is no need for a presumption. The matter was fully investigated in evidence … A presumption is only relevant in the absence of the relevant evidence’ ([77]).

Lloyd LJ acknowledged that, in assessing the defendant’s case, the facts had to be looked at as a whole as at the time when the claimant sought to act inconsistently with the alleged assurances. The judge had to ‘come to a view as to whether the combined effect of what the Claimant had said and done, on the one hand, and the overall conduct of the Defendants on the other, meant that the Claimant could not turn the Defendants out’ ([97]).

There was no evidence to show that the judge had failed to take account of any relevant conduct ([99]): ‘Nothing had been done which was relevant in support of the Defendants’ case, unlike the history in Thorner v Majors [2009] UKHL 18 where the claimant had been helping the deceased voluntarily for years before anything was said to him that could amount to a promise or representation’ ([99]).

The relevant assurances were said to have been contained in four promises alleged to have been given by the claimant to the defendants. The defendants criticised the first judgment for assessing the evidence in relation to each but for not giving a separate analysis of the cumulative effect of the promises. Lloyd LJ rejected this criticism: ‘It was not necessary for the judge, having dealt carefully and at length with the relevant conduct in making his findings as to the sequence of events, to set out any extended analysis of the matter looked at as a whole’ ([101]).

It was legitimate for the judge to have regard to the lapse of time between the alleged representations and the conduct said to amount to detrimental reliance: ‘If there is a noticeable delay, it may be capable of explanation, such as for reasons of lack of funds or otherwise, but absent such a reason given in evidence, a significant delay may well point to a lack of connection between the representation and the acts said to have been done in reliance on it’ ([103]).

Alternative claims for an interest under a common intention constructive trust and in unjust enrichment failed. There was no common intention and the defendants had done the repair and improvement works for their own benefit, to make the house habitable for themselves.

Michael Lower

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