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PROPERTY: Thorner v Major [2009] UKHL 18

Date:25 MAR 2009

(House of Lords; Lord Hoffmann, Lord Scott of Foscote, Lord Rodger of Earlsferry, Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe and Lord Neuberger; 25 March 2009)

The claimant worked on his cousin's farm for 29 years, without remuneration. The cousin made a number of statements that led the claimant to believe that the cousin would leave the farm to the claimant. Most significantly, the cousin handed the claimant a document relating to two life insurance policies, stating 'that's for my death duties'. The cousin did make a will in which he left his residuary estate, including the farm, to the claimant, but later revoked it because he did not wish one of the other legatees to inherit; the cousin failed to make a new will before he died, and died intestate. The farm therefore fell to be divided between the cousin's siblings. The claimant successfully pleaded proprietary estoppel at first instance, the judge making a finding that the cousin had intended to give the claimant the impression that he would inherit, and that the claimant had relied on that claim. However, the Court of Appeal allowed the estate's appeal, on the basis that the oblique assurances made by cousin to the claimant were insufficient to found a proprietary estoppel.

The cousin's assurances constituted sufficiently clear representations to establish proprietary estoppel. What amounted to sufficient clarity was hugely dependent on context. The Court of Appeal had focused unduly on the incident with the insurance document; in fact that incident had formed part of a continuing pattern of conduct by the cousin over 15 years. There were three conditions to the proposition that in order to found estoppel there had to be some sort of an assurance that was 'clear and unequivocal: (i) the effect of words or actions must be assessed in their context; (ii) it would be quite wrong to be unrealistically rigorous when applying the "clear and unambiguous" test; (iii) if the statement relied on to found an estoppel was capable of amounting to an assurance that could reasonably be understood as having more than one possible meaning, the ambiguity should not deprive a person who had reasonably relied on the assurance of all relief, although the relief should be limited to the least beneficial interpretation.