Proprietary Estoppel – Claim Fails as Promised Land Not Identified

This article continues on from the Rees v Windsor-Clive and others [2020] EWHC 2986 (Ch) case where the court considered a tenant's challenges to an arbitration award on notices to quit under Schedule 3, Case B of the Agriculture Holdings Act 1986 (AHA 1986).

The landlord (claimant) brought forward a claim for possession while the tenant (defendant) sought to rely upon the defence of proprietary estoppel based on promises made by the agent of the claimant.

It is important to note that where a party seeks to bring forward a proprietary estoppel claim or defence, three elements must be proven:

  1. An assurance or promise of sufficient clarity.
  2. Reliance on that promise.
  3. Detriment to the claimant in consequence of his or her (reasonable) reliance.

(Thorner v Major [2009] 1 WLR 776, at paragraph 29.)

The tenant in this case argued that the landlord had made a promise not to seek possession of the farm (wanted by the landlord for development) until development was due to commence and that the tenant would be offered replacement land on the estate if available, to continue their farming business or be compensated for the costs of relocating their farming business.

The court held in this instance that the claim for proprietary estoppel failed because the promises could only be enforced by certainty and in effect in this case amounted only to a further promise to negotiate fair compensation. Additionally, the replacement land for the new farm was not identified on the estate with further uncertainty arising around what was to happen in terms of property, contractual rights, interest and money payable by the landlord.

Although unnecessary, the Judge went on to further justify his decision by dealing with the other elements of proprietary estoppel.

Despite no clear promise being established between landlord and tenant, the Judge further indicated that the acts of detriment put forward (such as a lack of objection to the claimants planning applications which resulted in planning being accepted) were not substantial enough to amount to a detrimental reliance for the purposes of a proprietary estoppel claim, given that the defendants continued to farm the land for several years despite having knowledge of the claimant’s development plans.

As the case for proprietary estoppel failed, the claimant was entitled to possession of the farm.

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