Archive for the ‘Proprietary estoppel’ Category

Proprietary estoppel and oral land contracts: the last word?

September 26, 2021

Howe v Gossop ([2021] EWHC 637) addressed the question as to whether proprietary estoppel can be relied upon where the claim arises out of an oral agreement concerning land.

The problem is that such an agreement is only enforceable if the formalities requirements in section 2 of the Law of Property (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1989 have been satisfied. There are concerns as to whether it would be legitimate to allow oral land agreements to be the basis of a successful proprietary estoppel claim. In that case, proprietary estoppel appears to undermine the formalities rules.

In Howe v Gossop, the court resolved this conundrum with the proposition that proprietary estoppel claims can arise out of oral agreements concerning land so long as the relief sought does not amount to the enforcement of the oral agreement.

Facts

Mr and Mrs Howe sold land and buildings near their farm to Mrs Gossop. The terms of the transfer required Mr and Mrs Howe to pay GBP7,000 to Mrs Gossop for road resurfacing work carried out at Mrs Gossop’s expense.

Mr and Mrs Howe and Mr and Mrs Gossop subsequently orally agreed that the Howes would transfer two parcels of land (the ‘Green land’ and the ‘Grey land’) to the Gossops in return for a waiver of the obligation to pay GBP 7,000.

The Gossops carried out work on the Green land and the Grey land. Then relations between the parties broke down. The Howes brought proceedings to recover possession of the Green land and the Grey land.

The Gossops relied on proprietary estoppel in their defence, seeking a declaration that they were entitled to an irrevocable licence to occupy and use the land. They only raised this defence in relation to the Green land because the parties had not clearly delineated the Grey land. The defence succeeded in the court below.

Appeal

The Howes argued that a proprietary estoppel claim could not succeed because the agreement was not in writing as required by section 2 of the Law of Property (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1989. They argued that a claim based on an oral land contract could only succeed in exceptional circumstances (relying on passages in the House of Lords decision Cobbe v Yeoman’s Rowe Management Ltd and the Court of Appeal decision in Herbert v Doyle).

Decision

Snowden J. rejected the appeal. There was no requirement that the case be exceptional before proprietary estoppel can be relied on ([65]).

He distinguished cases in which proprietary estoppel was being used, in effect, to secure specific performance of an oral contract from cases where proprietary estoppel was being used as a defence to an action for possession.

The Gossops sought an irrevocable licence rather than specific performance of the contract and so there was no clash with the formalities requirements for land contracts ([50] and [53]).

Nor did it matter that the parties attempted to arrange for the agreement to be embodied in a written contract ([79]).

Snowden J. does not appear to rule out entirely the use of proprietary estoppel to enforce an oral land agreement but this would only be possible where there was some additional (unspecified) factor:

‘if a claimant is seeking relief that amounts to enforcement of a non-compliant contract, he needs to point to something else as the basis for an estoppel based on unconscionability.’ ([66])

Kinane v Mackie-Conteh ([2005] EWCA Civ. 45) is given as an example. In these cases, ‘some additional representation or conduct by the defendant’ is needed ([70]).

The fairness of the decision

Snowden J. pointed out that the Howes could not complain of being unfairly treated; the Gossops waived the GBP7,000 debt and got only equitable relief in return ([76]).

Michael Lower

Proprietary estoppel: Does detrimental reliance need to be incurred before the death of the promisor?

July 12, 2021

In Cheung Lai Mui v Cheung Wai Shing ([2021] HKEC 2263) the Court of Final Appeal had to consider whether, in proprietary estoppel cases, detrimental reliance had to be incurred before the death of the landowner who gave the assurance. If it did, they had to consider whether this requirement was satisfied in the present case.

The dispute concerned land in a village in the New Territories. The landowners in question were three brothers, each with a one third share in the land. D3 was the only grandson of the three brothers’ father.

There was a common understanding between the brothers, from the 1970s onwards, that D3 would inherit the land.

Knowing of this, D3, a building contractor, began building a wall around the property in the 1980s. D3 did further work in the early 1990s.

The death of the last of the brothers was in 1999. D3 erected two buildings and did improvement work at the property after 1999.

D3 inherited a one third share of the land. P was the executrix / administratrix of the other two thirds. She sought an order for sale of the land under the Partition Ordinance.

There were two questions:

(1) Did D3’s detrimental reliance have to have been incurred before the death of the brothers?

(2) If so, was the work that he did in the 1980s and early 1990s substantial enough to amount to detrimental reliance?

The Court of Final Appeal held that the detriment had to be incurred before the death of the landowner ([31]).

Where there were co-owners, the detriment had to be incurred before the last of the co-owners who gave the assurance ([33]).

Post-death events might be relevant to the form that the relief should take ([32]).

Implicitly, the Court of Final Appeal accepted that D3’s work before 1999 was detrimental reliance.

D3’s claim succeeded.

P held the two-thirds share on constructive trust for D3 who became, therefore, the sole beneficial owner ([38]).

Michael Lower

Informal land contracts: overlapping equitable doctrines

March 3, 2021

Introduction

The judgment in Ng Yuk Pui Kelly v Dung Wai Man [2019] HKCFI 210, shows that part performance, common intention constructive trust and proprietary estoppel are each available to plaintiffs seeking to enforce oral land contracts. The court also decided that a belief that one is in possession as owner by virtue of a valid contract (even when this belief is correct), is no bar to a successful adverse possession defence / claim.

Facts

Kelly (P) and Kuen were brothers. Kuen provided the finance to acquire two flats but legal title was assigned to his wife (D). D held the flats on resulting trust for Kuen.

In 1985, Kuen was in financial difficulty and orally agreed to sell the flats to P for HK$1 million (‘the 1985 agreement’). P paid the HK$ 1 million to Kuen but agreed not to press D to assign the legal title to P.

Kuen died and D and her children denied that P was the beneficial owner pursuant to the 1985 agreement.

P relied on part performance, common intention constructive trust and proprietary estoppel. Alternatively P argued that his adverse possession since 1985 meant that D’s title was extinguished.

P was successful under each heading except for part performance (where the problem may have been technical rather than substantive).

Part performance

P argued that payment of the HK$ 1 million to Kuen was an act of part performance of the 1985 agreement. P’s claim failed because he had not shown that payment of the money was referable to the agreement ([460]).

Common intention constructive trust

This succeeded. The 1985 agreement provided the common intention and the payment of the HK$1 million was the detrimental reliance ([466]).

D’s attempt to rely on Luo Xing Juan (to argue that the fact that D was not a party to the common intention was fatal to P’s claim) failed. Kuen did own the beneficial interest and the common intention can refer to a beneficial interest ([468]).

D’s attempt to rely on CPO s. 3(1) also failed. Cobbe v Yeoman’s Row was distinguished on the basis that in that case there was no valid agreement while in this case there was ([469]).

Proprietary estoppel

P could also succeed in proprietary estoppel. The lack of written formality for the disposal of an equitable interest in land (CPO s. 5(1)) was not a problem ‘where constructive trust and proprietary estoppel overlap’ ([471]).

The 1985 agreement was the assurance and payment of the HK$ 1 million was the detrimental reliance ([473]).

Adverse possession

As mentioned above, the alternative adverse possession claim also succeeded ([488]).

Michael Lower

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

October 26, 2020

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

When does the proprietary estoppel right arise?

November 11, 2019

In Walden v Atkins ([2013] EWHC 1387) the court held that a proprietary estoppel claim arises when there is promise, reliance and detriment and not when the maker of the representation goes back on it.

C sold property to DW and MW at a substantial discount to market value. He did so in reliance on DW and MW’s promise that they would ensure that the ownership of the property would revert to him on the death of the survivor of DW and MW.

DW died first and then MW died. MW left the property to E. C brought a claim in proprietary estoppel.

E argued that C had no standing to bring the claim. C had gone into bankruptcy and the effect was to vest C’s property in the trustee in bankruptcy. Did C have a proprietary right at that time?

C argued that the equity did not arise until MW died without giving effect to his promise and this was long after C’s bankruptcy.

The argument failed:

‘On the assumed facts, what happened was that by the sale of 37 Archery to DW and MW in January 1976 at a discount greater than 50% on the then market value, C acted to his detriment in reliance on the promise the subject of the 1975 Agreement. The promise thereby became irrevocable and the estoppel arose’ (at [35] per HHJ Simon Barker QC).

A little later:

‘The equity comes into existence, if at all, as the result of a promise being made to and relied upon by and a detriment being suffered by a promisee. It is at that point that the promise becomes irrevocable, the equity is recognised, and it is this equity to which the definition of property at s.436 IA 1986 is to be applied.’ [(48)]

This is so even though the question of unconscionability, and what may be necessary to undo it, is not considered until the later time when the promise falls to be performed ([45]).

Michael Lower

 

Habberfield v Habberfield

June 8, 2019

Habberfield v Habberfield [2019] EWCA 890

A mother and father owned a farm. They assured one of her daughters that she would inherit it. She worked long hours for low pay for many years. More generally, she did not pursue any alternative career plans. The father died and a dispute arose between mother and daughter.
The daughter’s proprietary estoppel claim succeeded. One of the issues that the Court of Appeal (Lewison LJ) had to consider was the relief.
Should it be calculated by reference to the detriment (GBP 220,000) or the expectation (GBP 1.1 million). The first instance judge decided that it was the latter. The mother was ordered to pay the daughter a sum sufficient to allow her to buy a farm of the type promised.
The mother argued that this failed to respect the principle that the relief should be proportionate to the detriment suffered.
There was some discussion of the question as to whether this was one of those ‘not far short of a contract’ cases and a recognition that this is not a hard and fast category but is at one end of a continuum.
Reluctantly (because of the hardship caused to the mother who would be forced to sell the farm and the farmhouse in which she lived) Lewison LJ upheld the first instance order.

Estoppel where the family home is owned by a company

April 26, 2019

 

The inference of a trust when the family home is owned by a company controlled by a spouse
In Prest v Petrodel Resources Ltd the UK Supreme Court established that English family law (specifically section 24 of the Matrimonial Causes Act) does not give the court any special power to pierce the corporate veil in the case of disputes concerning the family home owned by a company controlled by one of the spouses.

In an important passage of his judgment, however, Lord Sumption suggested that, ‘in the case of the matrimonial home, the facts are quite likely to justify the inference that the property was held on trust for a spouse who owned and controlled the company.’ This beneficial interest would count among the spouse’s assets when dealing with ancillary relief.

Other forms of equitable intervention
There might be cases, though, where the courts do not feel able to infer the existence of a trust but where the spouse (or co-habitee) who owned and controlled the company has assured the other that they have or will have an interest in the family home.

On the face of it, the person giving the assurance has no legal or equitable interest in the property. It would seem to follow that there is no basis on which the recipient of the assurance can claim an interest in the family home.

How might equity intervene to protect the expectations of the recipient of the assurance in these circumstances? In 2008, in Luo Xing Juan v Hui Shui See, the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal considered this question.

The facts in Luo Xing Juan v Hui Shui See

Luo Xing Juan (‘L’) and Hui Shui See (‘H’) co-habited in a property owned by Glory Rise Ltd (‘Glory Rise’). Glory Rise had acquired the property as an investment. The company had two shareholders when incorporated but subsequently H became the sole shareholder and director.

H asked L to marry him and she agreed. H assured L that he would give her a 35% interest in the property when he was in a position to do so. In the meantime, he transferred a 35% shareholding in Glory Rise to L.

H died before he was in a position to give effect to his promise to make L a co-owner of the property. H’s estate sought to revoke L’s licence to occupy the property. L responded with claims to an interest in the property based on the common intention constructive trust and proprietary estoppel.

The corporate veil rules out the use of the common intention constructive trust and proprietary estoppel

L’s claims failed because there was no reason to pierce the corporate veil: H had given an assurance about property owned not by him but by a third party, Glory Rise. Unlike Prest, it could not plausibly be suggested that the company held the property as trustee for H.

Promissory estoppel as the solution
L successfully resisted the company’s attempt to evict her by relying on promissory estoppel. H’s assurance was re-interpreted so that it related to the exercise of his powers as controlling shareholder of Glory Rise.

In effect, H had assured L that he would not allow his powers as controlling shareholder to be used to evict her until she had received the 35% beneficial interest in the property that she had been promised.

The Court of Final Appeal ordered that Glory Rise should be wound up on the just and equitable ground. The property was to be sold and L was to vacate it once a buyer had been found. L would then receive 35% of the net sale proceeds.

This solution has the clear merit of both respecting the corporate veil and of giving practical (and just) effect to H’s assurance and L’s detrimental reliance on it.

Promissory estoppel: no proprietary effect

Ribeiro PJ, in the main judgment in Luo Xing Juan, emphasised that promissory estoppel was a mere equity; it was not proprietary. It conditioned H’s exercise of the voting power connected with his controlling stake in Glory Rise and, indirectly, deferred Glory Rise’s ability to evict L.

The blurring of the distinction between proprietary and promissory estoppel

It is not surprising that promissory estoppel should be invoked so as to defer a licensor’s right to evict a licensee. Maharaj v Chand had already shown the way on this; promissory estoppel was used to prevent the man who was the legal owner of the family home from evicting his wife.

On the other hand, it is very noticeable that, in considering the relief to be granted, the Court of Final Appeal was guided by the classic English proprietary estoppel authorities (Crabb v Arun District Council; Pascoe v Turner; Gillett v Holt; Campbell v Griffin and Jennings v Rice). The Court of Final Appeal clearly intended that L’s relief should be designed with the exercise of the proprietary estoppel remedial discretion in mind.

Promissory estoppel was used, in effect, to protect L’s expectation of a 35% interest in Glory Rise’s property. This is surprising because it seems to contradict the proposition in Coombe v Coombe that promissory estoppel cannot be used as a cause of action.

The interplay between promissory estoppel and winding up on the just and equitable ground

The order was that Glory Rise should be wound up on the just and equitable ground. The substratum of Glory Rise was as ‘the intended vehicle for holding the Property as the matrimonial and family home of the deceased, Miss Luo and [Miss Luo’s daughter]’ (Ribeiro PJ at [74]). This substratum disappeared with H’s death.

This prompts the reflection that where, like L, the plaintiff is a shareholder in the company then a winding up petition (or, perhaps, unfair prejudice proceedings) are an option. Further, they represent an option which is available independently of any estoppel claim.

Limited to cases where the recipient of the assurance is a shareholder?

The Luo Xing Juan promissory estoppel approach is available even in cases where the recipient of the assurance is not a shareholder in the company that holds the property. Thus, in Hong Kong Hua Qiao Co Ltd v Cham Ka Tai (later upheld by the Hong Kong Court of Appeal), the Luo Xing Juan approach was adopted in a case with similar facts.

L and C began to co-habit in a property owned by a company in which L was effectively the sole shareholder. Each was already married when the relationship began.

L assured C that she would be able to live in the property for the rest of her life. L and C co-habited for five years before L died intestate. His wife and son sought to evict C from the property.

C was not a shareholder in the company that owned the family home, although the assurance concerned both the family home and shares in the company that owned it. Winding up would have been of no use to the recipient in this case.

Deputy Judge Saunders, relying on Luo Xing Juan, decided that L’s promises that C could live in the property for the rest of her life were ‘enforceable by way of promissory estoppel’ ([115]).

On relief, Deputy Judge Saunders, relying on Luo Xing Juan, said that C was entitled to an order transferring the legal title of the property to her ([118]). Again, this seems to have been a proprietary estoppel case in all but name.

Limited to family home cases?
Luo Xing Juan and Hong Kong Hua Qiao each concerned the use of promissory estoppel to establish a claim to the family home.

In Hong Kong Hua Qiao, Deputy Judge Saunders drew attention to the fact that both cases involved couples living together as man and wife ([93]) without explaining the significance of this fact. In Chan Sung Lai v Chan Sung Lim Paul, Deputy Judge Saunders (at [128]) expressed his uncertainty as to whether the doctrine could apply as between father and son.

Clearly, the distinction drawn in Thorner v Major between this context and the commercial context is likely to be relevant if there is any dispute as to the meaning of any words or conduct said to constitute an assurance.

Luo Xing Juan and Hong Kong Hia Qiao, however, were not concerned with questions of interpretation. If context was relevant it was for some other reason.

Deputy Judge Saunders may have intended to indicate that this approach to promissory estoppel was more likely to be used in the family home or ‘domestic’ context.

It may be that the Luo Xing Juan promissory estoppel will turn out to be confined to cases with the very specific features of these cases; it may be limited to cases where a couple are living together as man and wife (whether or not they are married) in a property owned by a company controlled by one of them (who gives the relevant assurance).

Limited to company owned by a single shareholder?

In both Luo Xing Juan and Hong Kong Hia Qiao, the company that owned the family home was solely owned by the maker of the relevant assurance. In Luo Xing Juan, H bought out his sister’s 20% minority stake around the same time as he transferred the 35% shareholding to L.

This raises the question as to whether the doctrine can only operate where the maker of the assurance is the sole shareholder. There are arguments in principle in favour of either possible answer to this question.

On the one hand, the relevant assurance is an assurance as to the exercise of voting control. There is no need for a shareholder to own all of the shares in a company to have the power to dictate the outcome of the board decision on any question.

On the other hand, if there are minority shareholders, other than the recipient of the assurance, then the effect of the use of the doctrine on their interests would need to be taken into consideration. They may view the property as an investment and in some market conditions might prefer the company to retain ownership.

This may seem a purely theoretical question but in Luo Xing Juan, H’s sister retained a 20% stake in the company for a few months after the transfer of the 35% shareholding to L. Had H died during those few months then this question would have had practical importance.

Limited to cases where the recipient of the assurance is in occupation of the relevant property at the time of the proceedings?

In Luo Xing Juan and Hong Kong Hia Qiao, the company that owned the family home sought to evict the recipient of the assurance who was in occupation of the property. Promissory estoppel is invoked, in the first place, as a defence against this attempted eviction.

Is this an essential element of the Luo Xing Juan doctrine? The company’s right to possession is not taken away but is conditioned by the estoppel. This accords with a traditional understanding of promissory estoppel and, as noted earlier, suggests a continuity with Maharaj v Chand.

Limiting the Luo Xing Juan approach to cases like this would be consistent with the idea, just discussed, that its use might be limited to family home cases.

A more general relaxation of the distinction between promissory and proprietary estoppel?

The approach in Luo Xing Juan challenges what had seemed to be a well-established distinction between proprietary and promissory estoppel in ways that I have indicated.

I have considered the possibility that the Luo Xing Juan approach is only intended to take effect in certain circumstances. I have considered what those circumstances might be.

It is possible, however, that the Court of Final Appeal intended to establish a more general proposition; it may be that the judgment intended to minimise or even abolish altogether the distinction between proprietary and promissory estoppel. This would explain why proprietary estoppel principles and authorities were applied so readily.

On the other hand, there is no express indication in any of the judgments to indicate that this was the intention; one would have expected that an intention to restructure the law in this way would be clearly flagged up and that some justification would be offered for it.

In paragraph [54] of his judgment, Ribeiro PJ raises the question of the relationship between promissory and proprietary estoppel:

‘The doctrine of estoppel continues to represent a developing area of the law and aspects of the applicable principles are subject to debate. Thus, there is discussion as to the extent to which promissory estoppel and proprietary estoppel overlap, with a body of opinion inclining towards the view that there is no real difference between them. In the present context, proprietary estoppel is inapplicable because the deceased, not being the owner of the Property, was not in a position to confer on Miss Luo a proprietary interest in it. However, as Maharaj v Chand establishes, this does not prevent recourse to promissory estoppel. The doctrines therefore differ at least to that extent. However, it is at the same time clear that many of the constituent elements of the two forms of estoppel are shared and where that is so, authorities on proprietary estoppel provide guidance in cases involving promissory estoppel.’

This passage leaves the question in the balance: there is substantial overlap but some (unspecified) difference. There is no suggestion here of an intention to effect radical change in the law.

Conclusion
When a limited company holds the title to the family home, assurances concerning ownership of the home given by a director or shareholder cannot directly limit the rights of the company nor give rise to a common intention constructive trust or proprietary estoppel claim.

Luo Xing Juan created the possibility that such an assurance could condition the exercise of that shareholder’s voting rights so that they could not be exercised in a way that is inconsistent with the assurance that has been given. This limitation is presented as a form of promissory estoppel.

The Court of Final Appeal went further when it decided that the effect of the estoppel was, in effect, to require the company to make good on the assurance given by the controlling shareholder.

It is not clear whether this promissory estoppel has general application or applies only in limited circumstances. If the latter, the circumstances in which the estoppel applies are not clearly defined.

Michael Lower

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

 

 

 

 

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

January 24, 2018

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

 

Proprietary estoppel in relationship cases: assurance or not?

January 14, 2018

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