Proprietary Estoppel

On the 4 November 2016, The Daily Telegraph reported on a hostile legal battle that had been in progress for 5 years.   The sensational headline read: 

“Widow, 91, faces eviction over legal fight with son over his father’s ‘inheritance promise’”

The story was about a 91-year-old widow, Margaret Davies.  She fell out with her 70 year old son over a derelict barn and one acre of land.  The son, Sidney Davies, claimed that when his father promised him the barn and land more than 40 years ago, he had given up his own home to move into a caravan there and convert the property.  

It was a bitter family dispute, and three generations of the family were drawn into the legal proceedings, with Sidney on one side and his mother, brother John, 68, and his own son Greg, 31, on the other.

The facts of the case were as follows: 

  • Mrs Davies moved to the farm, with her husband, in 1959.  
  • Sidney, the younger son, claimed that his father promised him in the early 1970s that he could have the barn and 1.3 acres of surrounding land for £6,000.  
  • He remembered details of the conversation when the promise was made clearly.  
  • Sidney never paid the agreed price, he did invest the same amount of money in the family business.
  • In the subsequent years, work began on the barn conversion, and Sidney moved onto the land.  
  • The work was never completed and the deeds were never handed over to him.  
  • Sidney’s father died in 1996, and ownership of the farm, including the disputed barn and land, passed into his mother’s name.
  • By the time Sidney realised that his mother was not going to honour the promise, he had lived on the land for over 20 years and spent thousands of pounds doing up the barn.

When Sidney eventually issued court proceedings in 2011 he relied on the doctrine of proprietary estoppel.  To succeed with the claim Sidney needed to establish three things: 

  1. There had been a promise; 
  2. The promise had been relied upon;
  3. He had suffered detriment. 

The judge found that there had been an agreement that the land would be his, Sidney had relied upon his father’s promise in 1975, when he sold his home in Rugby to move into a caravan beside the barn, and he had suffered detriment.

Sidney’s claim was successful but the judge decided that handing him the barn and land to Sidney would lead to further trouble with the other family members living as neighbours.  Instead, the judge awarded damages and Mrs Davies was ordered to pay him £68,000 plus legal costs of £50,000.  The debt was secured with a charge over the Farm. 

Sidney moved out of the property but his mother refused to pay.  He asked the court to enforce the order and it agreed.  Mrs Davies, was given until 24 November to pay what she owed, or she would be evicted from her home.  

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