Posts Tagged ‘oral land contracts’

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