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Thorner v Major [2009] UKHL 18

LAND LAW – PROPRIETARY ESTOPPEL – REQUIREMENTS

Facts

The claimant had worked on the defendant estate’s farm for over a decade without pay, believing that he would inherit the land when the defendant died. While the defendant once gave the claimant a bonus stating that it was for his ‘death duties’, he never explicitly told the claimant he would inherit. Under the original will, the property would have passed to the claimant, but the defendant retracted this will and died intestate. The claimant argued he should inherit the property due to proprietary estoppel.

Issues

A person will have an inchoate ‘equity’ in land if they can establish proprietary estoppel: that the land-owner made an unequivocal representation that the individual had an interest in the property, which that individual relied on to their detriment, such that it would be unconscionable for the land-owner to renege on his assurance.

The issue in this case was whether proprietary estoppel can arise in the absence of an explicit representation of proprietary interest.

Held

The House of Lords held that the claimant had established proprietary estoppel.

The House of Lords held that it is possible for a representation to be made by conduct alone, so long as that conduct conveys the message to a reasonable person sufficiently clearly that the claimant was to have a proprietary interest in the land. This was to be determined by all relevant circumstances, including the context of any representations or conduct, the relationship between the parties and their understanding of the context. In most cases where the message behind the conduct is somewhat ambiguous, the House of Lords thought this would not normally act to defeat proprietary estoppel.

On these facts, the conduct gave a sufficiently clear representation of proprietary interest to give rise to estoppel.


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