Proprietary estoppel: The importance of witness evidence

Proprietary estoppel 

We are specialist proprietary estoppel solicitors with experience of dealing with claims on a no win, no fee basis.  This case study tells the story of a farmer who succeeded in securing an interest in his parents’ farm and the importance of witness evidence to that success.

The proprietary estoppel claim

The claimant, Gilbert Thompson, sought to establish a propriety estoppel and resulting interest claim in his parents’ farm following his father’s death. Gilbert was the youngest of five children and the only son.

Gilbert’s parents, Mr and Mrs Thompson, purchased Woody Close Farm in 1989 having had various other farming ventures previously. The farming business was run initially by Mr Thompson alone and later by a farming partnership including Mrs Thompson and Gilbert. The partnership did not report significant profits but the land values had increased significantly over the years.

Mr Thompson died in 2012. There followed a breakdown in the relationships within the family over the next several years which resulted in Gilbert pursuing a claim for an increased interest in the farm. To succeed in a proprietary estoppel claim a claimant must show that promises and assurances were made to them, they had been relied upon and that detriment had been suffered as a result. A claimant must also show that it would be unconscionable for the promisor to be allowed renege from the promise.

Gilbert’s case was that his parents had planned for him to become a farmer even before he was born. He told the court that the reason his parents had so many children was due to a determination to have a son to take over the family farm. Gilbert claimed that Mr and Mrs Thompson had made various promises and assurances that he would inherit the farm and in reliance upon this he left school at fifteen with few qualifications and dedicated his working life to the farm. He had worked for long hours at low pay and given up opportunities for a life independent of his parents and the farm. Gilbert asserted that his parents had made clear to him, his sisters and others that he would receive the farm and his sisters would receive the benefit of an insurance policy. This was corroborated by evidence given by two of his sisters, several friends and a representative of the partnership’s long-term accountants.

Mrs Thompson defended the claim and was supported in doing so by one of her daughters, Karen, Karen’s ex-partner and two solicitors she had instructed repeatedly over the years. Mrs Thompson’s case was that no promises were made to Gilbert and that she and Mr Thompson never intended Gilbert to receive the farm. She disputed that there was any unfairness or inequity in the position and that Gilbert’s one-third share of the farming partnership made up for his “lifestyle choice” in staying to work on the farm.

The evidence in support of the claim

As inevitably happens with estoppel claims, the case turned on the available evidence. Gilbert relied upon contemporaneous documents and witness evidence in support of his case. The Court accepted his case andaccepted that Gilbert and his witnesses were honest and reliable. Weight was placed upon the documents, which were largely attendance notes from meetings attended by Gilbert, Mr and Mrs Thompson and occasionally Karen, and which were corroborated by each of Gilbert’s witnesses. In contrast, the Court was critical of Mrs Thompson and her witnesses. The witness evidence for the defence was unimpressive and described as “attempted character assassination” on Gilbert. The Court thought Mrs Thompson had become so convinced of Gilbert’s wrongdoing since Mr Thompson’s death that it clouded her judgement and memory of the history of the farm. Her starting position was that she and Mr Thompson never had any discussion about Gilbert eventually inheriting the farm. However by the end of cross-examination, she accepted they had wanted and expected this to happen.

The Court’s decision

The Court concluded that Gilbert had proved his case and that, upon the death of Mrs Thompson, he should enjoy the benefit of the farm as well as Mrs Thompson’s interest in the farming partnership. The specific form of relief to be granted was not dealt with at the hearing and the Court provided further directions for the resolution of a dispute about the dissolution of the farming partnership.

Specialist proprietary estoppel solicitors are here to help you

This case provides a clear example of the fundamental importance of evidence in proprietary estoppel claims. When a case turns on its facts and is based largely upon recollections of conversations and patterns of behaviour which have taken place over several decades much will rest upon the reliability and credibility of the witnesses. It is therefore important to use the services of specialist proprietary estoppel solicitors who are intimately familiar with the nuances of the law and experienced in dealing with the often complex evidential issues that can arise. To speak to a specialist proprietary estoppel solicitor call us on 0333 888 0407 or email us at [email protected]

Proprietary estoppel: The importance of witness evidence