What is proprietary estoppel?

In broad terms, estoppels operate to prevent Party A from going back on the terms of a promise they have made to Party B. In order for an estoppel to come into effect, Party B must have reasonably relied on that promise and suffered some detriment as a result.

Who can rely on proprietary estoppel?

Proprietary estoppels mainly operate to modify rights over land. It may come into effect where, for example, a father promises his son that he will inherit his father's farm if he works there full-time for little or no wages. If the son does so for the duration of his life on the understanding that he will therefore inherit it and his father instead leaves the farm to someone else, the son may be able to rely on the doctrine of proprietary estoppel.

It can also be used to enforce rights over other kinds of property, such as intellectual property.

Does the promise need to be verbal?

An important distinction between proprietary estoppel and other estoppels is that the father's promise does not need to be clear or unequivocal. It can simply be "clear enough". Therefore, the promise does not have to be verbal. There are three distinct situations in which proprietary estoppel can arise:

  • Where Party A has made a representation of an existing state of affairs to Party B (e.g. "you know this will all be yours one day")
  • Where Party A has made a promise to Party B (e.g. "I'm paying you less because I will leave you the farm in my Will")
  • Where Party A has allowed Party B to mistakenly believe that they currently have a right over the land, failing to correct them where necessary.

It is not necessary for the son to identify particular occasions by which the promise or assurance was given, as long as it is "clear enough". There is also no need for the father to understand that the son relied on his promise; he simply must have made it.

What will a claim under proprietary estoppel award a successful claimant?

Once the son has established an interest in the farm, the court will operate a two-stage test to determine the relief to which he is entitled.

  • The court will seek to determine the extent of the relief he is entitled to; then
  • The court will decide upon the type of relief to satisfy that entitlement.

The court has a broad discretion as to the relief granted and will take into account a broad range of factors such as:

  • The conduct of the parties.
  • The nature of the detriment.
  • Whether there are any other claims to the property in question.
  • What is proportionate in the circumstances.

The court then has the flexibility to decide on an award. Once taking those factors into account in the son's case, the court may decide to transfer the farm to him. Alternatively, they may decide to award him a sum of money to reflect his reasonable interests in the farm. The court is likely to consider the son's expectations and then checking that against the detriment suffered, with overall regard to avoiding a disproportionate outcome.

The court will, however, consider the practical implications of any award. The court's flexibility in these circumstances allows it to be innovative with its solutions.

Here to Help

Our Contentious Probate Solicitors have vast experience in bringing and defending proprietary estoppel claims. If you feel you may be eligible to make a claim, please get in touch with a member of our Contentious Probate Team on 0161 941 4000 or email the Myerson Contentious Probate Team.