• There are four ingredients to establishing proprietary estoppel: (1) the landowner must give a clear representation that another will have an interest/ right in a property, (2) the person to whom the representation is made must rely on that representation and (3) act substantially to their detriment, (4) so that it would unconscionable for the landowner to go back on their representation.
  • It was held in this case that an explicit and verbal statement need not be made to satisfy the first requirement. A representation, for the purposes of proprietary estoppel can take the form of conduct alone, provided it conveys a clear message.

Facts of the case:

  • C worked on D’s farm for over 10 years without pay. He did so because he was under the impression that he would inherit the land when D passed away.
  • The D gave the C a bonus stating it was for his ‘death duties’, he never explicitly informed C that C would inherit the farm.
  • Moreover, under D’s original will, C was to inherit the farm, however D retracted this will and died without one.
  • C argued that he should inherit the property on the grounds of proprietary estoppel

Issues in Thorner v Major [2009]

  • The main issue for the House of Lords in this case was whether proprietary estoppel could be established, notwithstanding the absence of an explicit promise to C that C would inherit the property. This pertains to the first ingredient of proprietary estoppel: to ‘make a clear and unambiguous representation’.

The House of Lords (HL) held:

  • The HL held in this case that the first limb of proprietary estoppel does not demand an explicit verbal promise from the landowner.
  • It suffices for a valid representation to made on conduct alone, provided that the conduct of the landowner conveys the message to a ‘reasonable person sufficiently clearly’, that the claimant was to have a proprietary interest in the land in question.
  • The HL stated that this will be determined following an assessment of the relationship between the parties, the context in which the representation was made, and the landowner’s and the claimant’s understanding of that context.
  • The HL stated that an ambiguous representation will generally be fatal to a claim of proprietary estoppel.

Lord Hoffmann

  • [780] “I do not think that the judge was trying to pinpoint the date at which the assurance became unequivocal and I think it would be unrealistic in a case like this to try to do so. There was a close and ongoing daily relationship between the parties. Past events provide context and background for the interpretation of subsequent events and subsequent events throw retrospective light upon the meaning of past events. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk. The finding was that David reasonably relied upon the assurance from 1990, even if it required later events to confirm that it was reasonable for him to have done so.”