Proprietary estoppel: Australian take on proving detrimental reliance in relationship cases

In Sidhu v Van Dyke ([2014] HCA 19) V was married to the brother of S’s wife. V lived with her husband in Oaks Cottage which was part of a larger lot of land (Burra Station) owned by S and his wife. V and his wife lived in a homestead which was part of the same lot. S and V began a sexual relationship. V and her husband divorced when the latter discovered the relationship.

S assured V on several occasions that he would transfer Oaks Cottage to her on the sub-division of the lot that included Oaks Cottage. S gave V a written note to confirm that he had promised to give Oaks Cottage to V.

V did not seek a property settlement in her divorce proceedings; S suggested that there was no need for her to do so since she had Oaks Cottage. V carried out substantial unpaid maintenance and renovation works on Oaks Cottage and on other parts of Burra Station. She was also actively involved in the work related to the application to sub-divide Burra Station.  V did not seek full-time employment during the years in which she lived in Oaks Cottage.

The relationship ended after nine years. V brought a proprietary estoppel claim when S and his wife refused to convey Oaks Cottage to V.

The first instance judge (Ward J) found that S made two promises to transfer Oaks Cottage to V by way of gift. These promises were, he found, conditional on the sub-division of the Burra Station lot. The claim failed. First, it would not have been reasonable for V to rely on the promises since the condition could only be satisfied with the consent of S’s wife. Second, Ward J. concluded that V had not been able to prove reliance on the promises. His reading of the evidence was that she might have incurred the detriment even in the absence of the promises.

V succeeded on appeal to the Court of Appeal of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. First, it was not objectively unreasonable for V to have relied on S’s promises. Second, the Court of Appeal relied on Greasley v Cooke: the circumstances were such as to raise a ‘presumption of reliance’. Barrett JA said:

‘Where inducement by the promise may be inferred from the claimant’s conduct, as is the case here, the onus or burden shifts to the defendant to establish that the claimant did not rely on the promise. It was therefore for [S] to rebut the presumption and establish that [V] did not rely at all on the promises in acting or refraining from acting to her detriment’ (Van Dyke v Sidhu (2013) 301 ALR 769 at 786 [83]).

The presumption of reliance was raised and had not been rebutted. Having regard to S’s wife’s interest in the property, the Court of Appeal refused to order the transfer of Oaks Cottage to V. Rather, S was ordered to pay equitable compensation by reference to the value of the disappointed expectation.

S appealed to the High Court of Australia. S contended that the Court of Appeal had gone astray in speaking of a presumption of reliance and thus reversing the burden of proof. Further, equitable compensation should be calculated by reference to the loss suffered in reliance on the promises and not by reference to V’s expectation.

The High Court of Australia rejected the notion that there could be a presumption of reliance:

‘In point of principle, to speak of deploying a presumption of reliance in the context of equitable estoppel is to fail to recognise that it is the conduct of the representee induced by the representor which is the very foundation for equitable intervention. Reliance is a fact to be found; it is not to be imputed on the basis of evidence which falls short of proof of the fact. It is actual reliance by the promisee, and the state of affairs so created, which answers the concern that equitable estoppel not be allowed to outflank Jorden v Money by dispensing with the need for consideration if a promise is to be enforceable as a contract’ ([58]).

There was no shifting of the burden of proof as regards reliance; the onus remained on V ([61]). Rather, ‘[t]he real question was as to the appropriate inference to be drawn from the whole of the evidence, including the answers elicited from the respondent in the course of cross-examination’ ([64]).

Put another way, the question was ‘whether, when all the facts are in, the court is satisfied on the balance of probabilities that the promises in question contributed to the respondent’s conduct in deciding to commit to her relationship  with the appellant and adhering to that relationship (with all that that entailed) for eight and a half years’ ([66]).

Nevertheless, V was able to show reliance: ‘A review of the whole of the evidence shows that the respondent had made out a compelling case of detrimental reliance’ ([67]). It was enough that the promises contributed to the decision by V to carry out work on the property. The promises did need not to be the sole cause of the detriment, merely to have influenced the decision (Amalgamated Investment & Property Co Ltd (In Liq) v Texas Commerce International Bank Ltd [1982] QB 84 at 104 – 105). In Steria Ltd v Hutchison ([2007] ICR 448) Neuberger LJ said that the representation need only have been ‘a significant factor’. V was able to show that this was the case.

On the measure of relief, the High Court said that, ‘[t]he requirements of good conscience may mean that in some cases the value of the promise may not be the just measure of relief ([83]). ‘If the respondent had been induced to make a small, readily quantifiable outlay on the faith of the appellant’s assurances, then it might not be unconscionable for the appellant to resile from his promises to the respondent on condition that he reimburse her for her outlay’ ([84]).

This was not the right approach in this case, however, since the detriment involved ‘life-changing decisions with irreversible consequences of a profoundly personal nature’ (Donis v Donis (2007) 19 VR 577 at 588 – 589 [34] per Nettle JA).

‘[I]n the circumstances of the present case … justice will not be done by a remedy the value of which falls short of holding the appellant to his promises … [W]here the unconscionable conduct consists of resiling from a promise or assurance which has induced conduct to the other party’s detriment, the relief which is necessary in this sense is usually that which reflects the value of the promise ([85]).

There was nothing conditional about the promises. These were ‘expressed categorically so as to leave no room for doubt that he would ensure that the subdivision would proceed and that the consent of the appellant’s wife would be forthcoming’ ([86]).

Michael Lower

 

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