Archive for the ‘equitable relief’ Category

Satisfying the equity in proprietary estoppel

January 12, 2019

Moore v Moore

In Moore v Moore ([2018] EWCA Civ 2669) a father (Roger) and son (Stephen) carried on a farming business in partnership; each owned one half of the business. Roger assured Stephen that Stephen would inherit Roger’s share in the business. Relations between the two broke down and Roger sought to dissolve the partnership.

In the ensuing litigation, Stephen relied on proprietary estoppel. He was able to establish the elements of a proprietary estoppel claim. The question then arose as to the approach to be taken to the relief to be granted.

Relief in proprietary estoppel: expectations, detriment or somewhere in between?

When the elements of a proprietary estoppel claim are established, deciding how to satisfy the equity ‘is a retrospective exercise looking backwards from the moment when the promise falls due to be performed’ (Davies v Davies [2016] EWCA Civ 463 at [38] per Lewison J). There is debate as to whether expectations or detriment ought to provide the measure for relief in proprietary estoppel cases (Davies v Davies at [39]) and often each of these factors will have a part to play.

In Jennings v Rice ([2002] EWCA Civ 159) Robert Walker LJ referred to a category of cases where ‘the assurances, and the claimant’s reliance on them, have a consensual character falling not far short of an enforceable contract’. Here, expectations are more likely to set the measure of equitable relief (Jennings v Rice at [45]). These cases are referred to below as ‘consensus’ cases).

Where, however, expectations are uncertain or incommensurate with the assurances given then expectations are no more than a starting point and the court is more likely to search for ‘the minimum equity to do justice to the plaintiff’ (Crabb v Arun District Council [1976] Ch. 179 at 198 per Scarman LJ).

In an important passage in Jennings v Rice, Robert Walker LJ said:

‘It would be unwise to attempt any comprehensive enumeration of the factors relevant to the exercise of the court’s discretion, or to suggest any hierarchy of factors. In my view they include, but are not limited to… misconduct of the claimant… or particularly oppressive conduct on the part of the defendant… To these can safely be added the court’s recognition that it cannot compel people who have fallen out to live peaceably together, so that there may be a need for a clean break; alterations in the benefactor’s assets and circumstances, especially where the benefactor’s assurances have been given, and the claimant’s detriment has been suffered, over a long period of years; the likely effect of taxation; and (to a limited degree) the other claims (legal or moral) on the benefactor or his or her estate. No doubt there are many other factors which it may be right for the court to take into account in particular factual situations.’ (Jennings v Rice at [52])

Application of the principles to Moore v Moore

At first instance

The first instance judge decided that the right approach was for Stephen to take over the farming business and assets (including houses on the farm) immediately. This would give effect to the clear intention that Stephen should be sole owner of the farm on his father’s death (to keep the farm in family ownership). He thought this meant that Roger and his wife should continue to receive what they had expected to receive from the farm during their lifetimes.

Specifically:

  1. Roger’s interest in the farm was to be transferred to Stephen immediately;
  2. Roger and his wife were to be granted irrevocable licences to live free of charge in one of the houses on the farm for the rest of their lives;
  3. Stephen was to make a weekly payment of GBP200 to Roger and his wife for the rest of their lives;
  4.  Stephen was to pay the reasonable costs of residential care for Roger and / or his wife should the need arise.

In the English Court of Appeal

Henderson LJ, with whom the other members of the English Court of Appeal agreed, thought that there were serious difficulties both with the first instance approach and with the scheme to which it gave rise ([90]):

  1. Roger (as Stephen must have appreciated) intended his wife to be the beneficial owner of his half share in the farm, with access to capital and income, during her life ([91]);
  2. Roger’s assurances to Stephen assumed that the partnership between them would remain a harmonious relationship. This was no longer the case so that the need for a ‘clean break’ became a paramount consideration. The first instance order, however, created an ongoing state of financial dependence on Stephen ([93]);
  3. It was a dangerous over-simplification to regard this case as a paradigmatic example of a consensus case. Referring back to paragraph 52 of Jennings v Rice (see above), there had been ‘alterations in the benefactor’s assets and circumstances’. The personal and commercial relationship had broken down. Roger’s health had broken down; he had Alzheimer’s disease and lived in a care home ([94]);
  4. The first instance judge had taken a minimalist view as to the provision to be made for Roger and his wife. The judge should, rather, have considered the minimum award to satisfy the equity. The decision to order an immediate transfer to Stephen made it all the more important ‘to provide full and generous protection for Roger and Pamela during the remainder of their lives, and to reflect as far as possible the provision that Roger would have wished to make for Pamela on his death’ ([95]);
  5. The judge had also failed to take account of ‘the likely effect of taxation’ (Jennings v Rice [52]). The first instance judge had been provided with no guidance on this issue: ‘this should be as unacceptable in a substantial proprietary estoppel
    case as it would be in a big money divorce case’ ([96]). The order made at first instance would have seriously adverse taxation consequences.
  6. The judge had failed to consider the effect of any costs order on the financial arrangements he had provided for. Where, for example, was Roger to find the money to meet any such order once he had transferred his assets to Stephen and had only the weekly payment from Stephen to call on ([97]).

The order made at first instance could not stand and the case was remitted for a further hearing as to how the equity was to be satisfied with the benefit of the Court of Appeal’s guidance ([101] – [108]). While the order for an immediate transfer to Stephen should stand, there should be more generous provision for Roger and his wife (both in terms of capital and income) to allow for a clean break.

To this end, the order should require Stephen to pay a considerable (GBP 1 million – 2 million) lump sum to Roger and his wife. While Stephen should assume responsibility for his father’s health costs, the lump sum would allow his wife to pay for her own health care needs.

Comment

Moore v Moore offers detailed guidance as to how the court should approach equitable relief and the requirement to ‘satisfy the equity’. Paragraph [52] in Jennings v Rice emerges as a significant source detailing the factors to be borne in mind.

Moore v Moore illustrates the need for careful consideration of the nature of the expectations generated by the assurances given, the context in which they were given and any changes in that context at the time when effect is to be given to the assurance.

In general it illustrates the potential for proprietary estoppel to combine remedial flexibility with a degree of predictability as to the factors that the court will take into account when granting relief.

This approach might well, in time, give proprietary estoppel the edge over the common intention constructive trust when dealing with the property and financial aspects of a relationship breakdown. Crucially, it is possible to have regard to the state of the relationship between the parties and their circumstances both at the time that the order is made and thereafter.

Michael Lower

 

 

 

 

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