Bradbury v Taylor & Burkinshaw [2012] EWCA Civ 1208

This is a slightly unusual proprietary estoppel case in that it was brought by the alleged promisor, Bill, who sought a declaration that the defendants had no beneficial interest in his house. They counterclaimed for a declaration that it was held on trust for them. Bill died (aged 90) the day before the proceedings were heard but they were continued by his executors.

The facts

Bill, a widower, lived alone in a large house in Cornwall called Lower Manaton. He persuaded his nephew, Roger, and partner Denise, with their two children, to move from their home in Sheffield to live in a separate part of Lower Manaton to provide him with help and support. There were discussions about the precise terms and a draft letter dating from around that time which referred to Bill leaving the house to them subject to certain conditions.

Relations between the parties soured before Bill brought the proceedings in June 2010. He had made a series of wills. In a 1998 will, Roger and Denise were to be allowed to occupy Lower Manaton for seven years after Bill’s death, on stated terms and conditions. If, at the end of the seven years, his trustees or a majority of them, were satisfied that the terms and conditions had been complied with, then Lower Manaton was to pass to Roger and Denise outright. Otherwise it was to be sold and the proceeds were to be distributed by way of legacies, of which Roger and Denise were each to receive £5,000.

Their rights in relation to Lower Manaton were reduced in later wills and in the final will made in 2009 they were given no rights to it at all. In June 2009, Bill wrote a letter to Denise and Roger in which he told them of his present intentions as regards his will (though not in detail), which were to include benefits for his grandson, Michael, and the latter’s daughter, and making it clear that they were welcome to stay in Lower Manaton during the rest of his life, but that they would have no right to stay there after his death.

In the course of this letter he said this about the original invitation: ‘Initially, I invited you to live here, rent-free, in a different environment, in a not-unpleasant house and garden; and should you accept it would be occasional company for me and the occupation of an unused part of the house. That is all it was: no undercurrents or hidden messages. That it has turned sour has caused me some distress and uncertainty for you.’

At paragraph 15 of his witness statement, he said ‘Roger would be the last person that I would leave the house to’, and at paragraph 16 ‘there never was any intention of leaving my house to him, or anyone else’. As the Court of Appeal said, had Bill lived, the terms of the 1998 will would have provided interesting material for the cross-examination.

The decision

The necessary elements of a claim for proprietary estoppel are: assurance, reliance and detriment. If these elements are established so strongly that it would be unconscionable to allow the promisor to go back on his promise, the court will offer relief. The relief will not necessarily be what was promised. The court will order the minimum necessary to do equity.

The trial judge found that there were representations: ‘They may not have been express representations but they were sufficiently clearly understood by both Roger and Denise and, as I find, they were intended to be so understood by Bill as meaning that if they moved from Sheffield to Lower Manaton in Cornwall and made their contribution as he had spelled out orally but confirmed in the letter dated 23 July 2001 he would leave the property to them in his will.’ Roger and Denise had wanted written confirmation from Bill that he would leave them the property by will and that he would not change his mind.

They did not get this, but the trial judge took the view that Bill’s failure to put anything down in writing did not amount to a communication to them that he reserved to himself the right to deal with the property as he thought fit in his will.

Counsel for the estate argued that the couple suffered no detriment or that such detriment as they suffered could be balanced against the advantage they gained and should be found not to be substantial. The trial judge disagreed, finding that the move itself amounted to detrimental reliance even though there were substantial benefits for the couple from the move. He also accepted that they had provided care for Bill and that work done and expenditure incurred by Roger in improvements to Lower Manaton was also detrimental reliance. The detriment suffered was sufficient to require relief.

The trial judge then had to consider whether it would be disproportionate to order the transfer of the house. He concluded that it would not: ‘I find that this is precisely the sort of case envisaged by Robert Walker LJ in Jennings v Rice at paragraph 45 of his judgment where the expected benefit and the expected detriment were in general and in an imprecise way equivalent, or at any rate not obviously disproportionate, and in the circumstances I propose to find that the defendants are entitled to receive the property absolutely though subject to bearing the inheritance tax attributable to the value of the property.’

The Court of Appeal saw no grounds for interference with this result. Lloyd LJ said: ‘The judge directed himself correctly as to the law, which had not been in dispute between the parties, and as to which he cited the most relevant passages from prior authority. He took into account all relevant factual considerations including, in terms, the advantages to Roger and Denise of living at Lower Manaton, while retaining their house in Sheffield, which for a time they let out.

‘On that basis he carried out an evaluative exercise as regards the benefits and disadvantages, and as to how Roger and Denise would be placed if the representation were permitted to be resiled from. It does not seem to me that he committed any error in carrying out this process, or in coming to the outcome that he did.’

Lesley King, College of Law