EVERYDAY LAW: When there is no will
AN INTERESTING CASE that demonstrates that a paper owner may be displaced or may be affected by the rights of another claimant to title is the English case of Thorner v Majors and others .
In Thorner the material facts were that Peter Thorner owned a property called Steart Farm. David Thorner whose father was a cousin of Peter worked on the farm for Peter for 30 years.
David was not paid for his work. David also worked on his parents’ farm and they gave him accommodation and pocket money. As a result of working for his parents and for Peter Thorner, David worked very long hours. David declared that, on Peter’s death he would inherit Steart Farm.
There was no clear promise or assurance by Peter, but David’s belief developed over a period of 15 years and was encouraged by Peter’s conduct. As a result David continued to work for Peter and did not pursue other opportunities. Peter did in fact make a will leaving the farm to David.
However because of a dispute with other beneficiaries named in the will Peter destroyed the will and died without having made a new will and therefore his entire property including the farm passed not to David but to other closer relatives who were entitled on intestacy.
David argued that Peter’s estate was under a duty to him as a result of proprietary estoppel.
David argued that Peter’s conduct over a number of years, having regard to the fact of their relationship as taciturn farmers was enough to lead him to reasonably believe that Peter was committed to leaving the farm to him.
The judge of the High Court held in favour of David and ordered that Peter’s estate was under a duty to transfer Steart Farm to David.
The Court of appeal reversed the decision of the judge at first instance holding that Peter had never made a clear promise that he would leave the farm to David even though he may have indicated that he had the intention to leave the farm to him.
The House of Lords unanimously allowed the appeal against the decision of the Court of Appeal.
At the beginning of his judgment in the House of Lords Lord Walker discussed the doctrine of proprietary estoppel.
He said: “This appeal is concerned with proprietary estoppel. An academic authority (Simon Gardner, An introduction to Land Law (2007) p101) has recently commented:
“There is no definition of proprietary estoppels that is both comprehensive and uncontroversial (and attempts at one have been neither).”
Nevertheless most scholars agree that the doctrine is based on three main elements, although they express them in slightly different terms: a representation or assurance made to the claimant; reliance on it by the claimant; and detriment to the claimant in consequence of his (reasonable) reliance.”
The court held that the Claimant must reasonably understand that the property owner is making a commitment. Whether or not there is a commitment depends on the facts.
In the Thorner case, the fact that David and Peter were taciturn farmers made it more reasonable for David to believe that Peter was making a commitment even though no specific statement was made.
The Court also held that the Claimant’s reliance on the property owner will be only reasonable if the property owner’s commitment appears to the Claimant to have been intended to be taken seriously by the Claimant.
This case demonstrates another situation which can be relied upon an appropriate case to make a claim against a paper owner.
The doctrine of proprietary estoppel in an appropriate case can be relied upon by a licensee in occupation of premises who has acted to his detriment based on promises made by the paper owner or a previous owner of the property. For example, the licensee may have been encouraged to erect a house on the land or to expend monies on improving property on the land.
• Cecil McCarthy is a Queen’s Counsel. Send your letters to Everyday Law, Nation House, Fontabelle, St Michael. Send your email to [email protected]