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Crabb v Arun DC [1975] EWCA Civ 7

LAND LAW – ENFORCEMENT OF GRATUITOUS PROMISES - PROPRIETARY ESTOPPEL

Facts

The claimant purchased land with a limited number of access points. The defendant authority placed gates at the access points, and an informal arrangement was reached by which the claimant would be able to keep using the access points. The claimant sold part of his land, leaving him entirely reliant on one of the access points to access the remainder. The defendant replaced the gate with a fence, and refused to open the access point.

Issues

Normally for a promise to be binding, a contract must be established. Here, there was no contract because the promise was gratuitous: there was no consideration. The issue in this case was whether the promise could ever be binding in the absence of consideration.

Held

The Court of Appeal held that the promise was enforceable under the doctrine of ‘proprietary estoppel’. This doctrine applies where it would be inequitable for the defendant to insist on its strict legal rights to renege on the arrangement. Inequity arises where the defendant has promised that the claimant will have a proprietary interest knowing or intending that the claimant will act upon it, and where the claimant has acted upon it. The relevant promise can be made by either words or conduct.

In this case, while there was no firm assurance that the claimant could use the access point, the council’s conduct (putting up a gate and leaving it open for many years) solidified the claimant’s expectation. The council was aware that the claimant intended to sell a portion of the land and would be reliant on the access point, but did nothing to disabuse him of the belief that he had a right to it. A proprietary estoppel arose.


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