What is Proprietary Estoppel?

This is sometimes referred to as Promissory Estoppel.

One of the areas where this principle is adopted is the Administration of Estates.

Often the deceased can make verbal promises, jewellery or other personal possessions such as a car. This is not uncommon. It can also be for more substantial matters such as a property or land.

In a recent decision made by the high court over the inheritance of a family farm. A woman has been awarded over 1 million pounds in damages under the propriety estoppel rule of law.

The claimant in this particular case was awarded damages in recognition of the work she had done on the farm over a period of three decades.

Starting at the farm just after she had left school, the claimant initially began working with her father to re-introduce a dairy herd to the farm, later going onto to run the dairy business.

She worked on the farm for over 30 years and where she was joined by her partner, who she later had four children with. Together, the couple continued running the business whilst raising their family.

Though the claimant confirmed that her father assured her that she would take over the farm, upon his death in 2014, these promises were not carried out.

This prompted her to bring a claim, which her mother opposed.

The claimant told the court “I worked hard on the farm for so long, and following my father’s drop in health, my siblings, with the help of my mother, made it impossible to stay on the farm. To start with I did not know I could do anything about the situation. Once I realised there was something I could do, I know I had to try for my children’s sake, and to give them a secure future.”

Her lawyers had argued that for 30 years the claimant had worked for seven days a week, for low wages on the family farm, on the understanding that one day she would take over the family farm from her father.

After hearing the evidence, the judge ruled in favour of the claimant. He found that she had kept her side of the bargain. To compensate her for the detriment she has suffered over the years, she was awarded a sum equivalent to the value of the farm land and farm buildings.

In this particular case the claimant’s advisors provided evidence from more than twenty witnesses, many of whom were local farmers and farm workers.

In regard to the issue at the centre of the claim, the judge went onto state; ‘The area of the law involved is called Proprietary Estoppel. It is a developing area, with a series of high profile cases, particularly relating to farms over recent years.

Claims for items of little value are unlikely to go forward because of the costs involved of bringing the action.

However, the principle exists, and provided the evidence is acceptable. It is clear that these verbal promises can be enforced.