Can I make a claim against someone for going back on their word?

Callers to our legal helpline often ask, 'can I make a claim against someone for going back on their word?'

This is a particularly common query in relation to property, where someone has been promised that their efforts and contributions will be rewarded with an interest in the property, but is then let down. In these cases a legal principle known as estoppel comes into play. Estoppel can be used to prevent people from going back on their word and force them to honour their promises. 

Estoppel claims can involve highly complex legal issues and they are not always successful, as farmer Clive Shaw recently found to his cost.

Clive brought a legal action against his parents, Walt and Gill, claiming they had gone back on their promise to leave him the £1million family farm in their wills. 

Walt and Gill had rewritten their wills having fallen out with Clive, leaving the family farm to his two sisters instead. They did this on the basis that Clive had not worked hard enough on the farm over the years and could not be trusted to get up early to milk the cows. Walt and Gill gave evidence that Clive “hated the herd” and “made the cows nervous”.

The court agreed with Walt and Gill and consequently Clive is now required to move out of the family farm on top of having to pay his parents’ £100,000 legal bill.

The Judge commented:

Clive was promised the farm would be his inheritance from about 1978 onwards, but those assurances were conditional upon Clive working properly on the farm in the manner of a dedicated, long-term farmer.

However, Clive was not sufficiently interested and his lifestyle choices were such that he did not want to take on the farm and dedicate himself to it, as his interests were elsewhere, in driving and engineering."

Clive’s said he had worked hard on the farm over a number of years.  But his evidence was countered by his sister, Cheryl Hughes, who said that Clive would often comment that the cows were “stinking, horrible, rotten creatures”.

Walt and Gill commented that it would have been their “biggest dream” for Clive to run the family farm. 

The claim is relatively unique in that Walt and Gill were able to give evidence and explain why they decided to disinherit their son.  Usually this type of claim is brought after the parents have passed away. 

In order for Clive's claim to have been successful, he would have had to convince the Judge that:

  1. His parents promised to leave him the farm and in return he would work on it during their lifetime.
  2. He relied upon their promise and consequently suffered a detriment as a result of Walt and Gill’s decision to go back on their word.

The Judge is likely to have been swayed by the fact that Clive ran a trucking business and did not dedicate himself fully to the farm.  It is therefore arguable that Clive failed to meet the first criterion. 

Claims of this type are particularly fact sensitive so it is important to speak to a specialist lawyer at the outset.  If you have been let down by a broken promise and want to know if you can make a claim against someone for going back on their word then call our free legal helpline on 0808 139 1599 or email us at