Gillett v Holt & Anor
An equivocal or revocable representation could give rise to a proprietary estoppel, since it was not the irrevocability of the representation when it was made which empowered equity to intervene, but the fact of subsequent detrimental reliance on the part of the representee, which made the representation irrevocable.
Appeal by the claimant ('G') from the judgment of Carnwath J dismissing G's claim to equitable relief based upon proprietary estoppel, arising out of what G claimed were repeated assurances by the first defendant ('H') that H would bequeath his agricultural land and farming business to G by his will. In the event, the terms of H's latest will were such that those assets would pass to the second defendant ('W') on H's death. In a related action the judge held that G had the benefit of a protected agricultural tenancy in relation to part of the agricultural land. In 1955, when he was 15 years old, G went to work for H on a full-time basis in his farming business, which H conducted through a limited company. H retired from the day-to-day running of the farm business in 1964, from which time G ran the business as farm manager. G contended that H had treated him like a son. The judge identified seven incidents over a number of years, usually before assembled company at special family gatherings, where H had given oral assurances to G to the effect that "one day all this will be yours". The judge further found that, in reliance upon those assurances, G had committed the future of himself and his family to the farm business. H made a number of wills which gave effect to those assurances. However, following a breakdown in the relationship between H and G, H made a further will, by which he left his entire residuary estate to W. The judge held that he could not find in any of the representations made by H anything which could reasonably be construed as a irrevocable promise that G would inherit, regardless of any change in circumstance, and that accordingly the claim in proprietary estoppel had to fail. He went on to say that the claim would have failed in any event as G had failed to prove that he had suffered sufficient detriment in reliance upon H's assurances.
(1) An equivocal or revocable representation could give rise to a proprietary estoppel, since it was not the irrevocability of the representation when it was made which empowered equity to intervene, but the fact of subsequent detrimental reliance on the part of the representee, which made the representation irrevocable. Wayling v Jones (1993) 69 P&CR (CA) considered. Criticisms which Taylor v Dickens (1998) 1 FLR 806 (HH Judge Weeks) had previously attracted were well-founded. H's assurances had been repeated over a long period, and some were completely unambiguous. The judge's conclusion on this point could not stand. (2) Detriment was not a narrow or technical concept. It need not consist of the expenditure of money or other financial detriment, but had to be approached as part of a broad inquiry as to whether it was unconscionable in all the circumstances for the representor to resile from the representation. The judge had failed to stand back and look at the matter in the round. Had he done so, he would have realised that G's case on detriment was an unusually compelling one. (3) The equity was to be satisfied by the transfer to G of the freehold in one of the farms now farmed by H, together with a payment of £100,000 (together with interest) to compensate him for his exclusion from the remainder of the farming business.
Appeal allowed. Order accordingly.