Proprietary Estoppel and Promises That Never Were: The Earl and The Tenant Farmer
Proprietary estoppel provides a cause of action in equity which could prevent a person who gave a promise in relation to land from backtracking from the promise. The Court in such cases has broad discretion as to how it will attempt to satisfy the promise in equity.
In the case of Rawlings v Chapman  EWHC 3160 (Ch), HHJ Cooke set out the requirements for proprietary estoppel as follows:
“A proprietary estoppel arises where:
- a) the owner of land induces encourages or allows the claimant to believe that she has or will enjoy some right over the owner’s property;
- b) in reliance on this belief, the claimant acts to her detriment to the knowledge of the owner;
- c) the owner then seeks to take unconscionable advantage of the claim by denying her the right or benefit which she expected to receive.”
LJ Kitchin in Farrer v Miller  EWCA Civ 172 indicated that an agreement between the parties is not required, but that the property owner making the promise must have “induced, encouraged or allowed” the other party to think that they had or would acquire and interest in the disputed land. LJ Hoffman in Walton v Walton (Unreported, CA 14 Apr 1994) stated that there must be no ambiguity on these inducements/promises, and that they need to appear to have been taken seriously.
In the case of Earl of Plymouth v Rees  EWHC 3180 (Ch), the trustees of the farm land (The Earl, his daughter and son) had intentions for a residential development on the land outside Cardiff. In order to proceed they served notices to quit on the tenant farmers and sought possession.
The tenants brought a counterclaim on the basis that they had been told by the agents of the landowners that they would not have land taken from them until it needed to be built on and could retain the farmhouse, as well as being given an offer of further available land to continue farming, or alternatively receive reimbursement of costs for moving their farming business elsewhere.
The case turned on whether these discussions met the standard of being an inducement/promise that could be relied upon, and whether the tenants suffered detriment as a result of that reliance such that the landowners should be estopped from obtaining their possession order and evicting the tenants without some sort of interest/satisfaction of the equity being given to the tenants.
The tenant was the key witness and gave oral evidence in Court about the representations made by the agent. His evidence was largely not in dispute, but rather the debate between the parties turn on whether the inducements and detriment alleged were sufficient to give rise to the estoppel.
In the end, the judge did not find that the representations of the agent were sufficiently clear or certain to constitute a promise capable of being relied upon for proprietary estoppel purposes, nor that the tenants were able to make out the detriment they had suffered in relying upon any such assertions. On this basis the counterclaim by the tenants failed and the landlords succeeded in obtaining possession.
The case highlights that in order to succeed in proprietary estoppel claims, the promise, reliance and detriment must be unambiguous and clear enough for the court to make a decision that it would be unconscionable for the promise to be resiled from.
Ryan Taylor is based in the London Bridge office and specialises in contentious probate and contentious trusts matters.
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