Cheung Lai Mui v Cheung Wai Shing (Hong Kong Court of Appeal)

Introduction

Cheung Lai Mui v Cheung Wai Shing ([2020] 2 HKLRD 15) concerned a claim based on common intention constructive trust and proprietary estoppel. Where the landowner (the maker of the relevant assurance) has died, does detrimental reliance need to take place before the death? What kind of knowledge of the detrimental reliance must the maker of an assurance have for a proprietary estoppel claim to succeed.

Facts

Three brothers (W, K and F) were tenants in common in equal shares of land in a village near Sai Kung. From the late 1970s onwards, they reached a common understanding (‘the common understanding’) that D3 (W’s grandson and the sole surviving male descendant of the Cheung family) would own the land when he became an adult.

P was K’s daughter. When he died, she became the executrix of his estate. F died intestate and letters of administration of his estate were granted to P. She thus became the legal owner of K and F’s shares and the beneficial owner of K’s share and beneficial co-owner of F’s share.

W was the last of the brothers to die (he passed away in 1999). His share in the tenancy in common passed to his son and daughter (D1 and D2). D3 was D1’s son.

In 2002, D3 built a one-storey structure on the land and in 2003 he created a second one-storey structure to which he added a second storey. D3 and his family began to live in these buildings in 2002 or 2003.

P lived near D3’s home and visited it on various occasions. She knew that D3 carried out work on the land and raised no objections.

Relations between P and D3 started to deteriorate in 2012. P sought an order for D3 to remove the structures he had built. D3 claimed to be the sole beneficial owner of the land relying on common intention constructive trust and proprietary estoppel.

D3’s claim was based (a) on the common understanding, and (b) on P’s acquiescence in the works that D3 carried out on the land.

The common understanding: timing of the detrimental reliance

P argued that D3’s claims based on common intention constructive trust and proprietary estoppel had to fail because D3’s detrimental reliance (the building works) was incurred after the death of the brothers.

The Court of Appeal agreed that this would be fatal to a common intention constructive trust claim. The case was remitted to the first instance judge for him to determine whether there was any detrimental reliance while the brothers were still alive.

There appears to have been a difference of opinion as to whether detrimental reliance also needed to have been incurred before death for the proprietary estoppel claim to succeed.

Lam VP ([1.6] and Cheung JA ([6.35 and 6.38]) agreed that for common intention constructive trust purposes the detrimental reliance needed to take place before death.

If it had then the brothers’ estates were subject to the equity that had arisen. If not then the property would pass according to their wills or under the intestacy rules, unencumbered by any equity ([1.20] and [6.36]).

Lam VP thought that, in this respect, the law of proprietary estoppel might be different from that of the common intention constructive trust ([1.28]) and that D3’s proprietary estoppel claim based on the common understanding succeeded ([1.35]).

The assurance was that D3 would become the owner of the land when he became an adult. It was not a promise that he would inherit the property on the death of the brothers.

Cheung JA, on the other hand, thought that the requirement for detrimental reliance before the death of the brothers was the same both for proprietary estoppel and the common intention constructive trust ([6.38]).

Could D3 succeed even if there were no detrimental reliance before the death of the brothers? Estoppel by silence.

Cheung JA thought that D3 might still succeed in proprietary estoppel even if D3 only incurred detrimental reliance after the death of the brothers.

It might be possible to argue that she was a party to the common understanding ([6.39]).

Alternatively, there might be an estoppel by acquiescence or standing by ([6.40]). Cheung JA referred to the outline of the relevant law in Mo Ying ([5.6]). P stood by and allowed D3 to carry out the building works in (possibly mistaken) reliance on the common understanding. The case was being remitted to the Court of First Instance and this aspect of the matter would also need to be re-appraised.

Does the maker of the assurance need to know about the detrimental reliance?

It is not normally necessary for the maker of the assurance (the brothers) to know about the detrimental reliance ( Lam VP at [1.34]). Cheung JA addresses this issue at some length in his judgment.

Cheung JA tied his discussion of a knowledge requirement into the ‘narrow’ concept of unconscionability which is concerned with the state of mind of the person giving the assurance ([6.46]). The emphasis is on the quality of the words used not on knowledge of any actual detrimental reliance (Thorner v Major Lord Hoffmann at [5]).

In active encouragement cases (express words of encouragement or assurance) there is not usually any need for the maker of the assurance to have actual knowledge that there was detrimental reliance or the form it took. This knowledge is necessary in the case of estoppel by silence or acquiescence ([6.59] – [6.60]).

Comparison of the common intention constructive trust and proprietary estoppel

Lam V-P thought that the outcome was different in the case of proprietary estoppel when compared with common intention constructive trust. It is not surprising, then, that he draws attention to their differences ([1.4]).

Equitable estoppel ‘is the more flexible tool’ and the court looks backwards from the time when the promise falls to be performed([1.10] referring to Lord Hoffmann’s words in Walton v Walton at [105]).

Michael Lower

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