Guest v Guest – How proprietary estoppel has changed

Guest v Guest – How proprietary estoppel has changed

It has been 18 months since the Supreme Court handed down its much-anticipated judgment in the Guest v Guest case, significantly impacting how courts consider future proprietary estoppel claims.

Having acted for the successful appellants, Robert James, Partner in the Thrings Agriculture Litigation team, reflects on the case and what it means for family disputes in agriculture.

The Supreme Court addressed the thorny issue of how the court should approach the question of relief if a proprietary estoppel claim is successfully made out, and in principle ending years of ‘lively controversy’ (a prominent phrase in the Supreme Court appeal) of whether the court should adopt an expectation-based approach or a detriment-based approach.

The judgment

Lord Briggs’ lead judgment said that, ultimately, the whole purpose of proprietary estoppel is to compensate any unconscionability, with the simplest way to do that being to give effect to the promise i.e. the ‘expectation-led’ approach.

The judgment added, however, that there may be circumstances where strictly giving effect to the promise may not be fair, and in those circumstances a financial sum of equivalent value may be appropriate. If giving effect to the promise is disproportionate, then the court would need to consider limiting relief and therefore leaving the door very much open for the court to depart from starting position of giving effect to the promise

The outcomes

In theory, the clarification from the Supreme Court as to the proper approach to take in relation to relief should give parties and their legal representatives greater certainty on the likely remedies that may be applied in a given case, which in turn may assist parties to reach a compromised settlement that may historically have been more difficult whilst the lively controversy persisted.

Since Guest v Guest was published, proprietary estoppel cases have continued to reach the High Court, albeit these claims would have been issued prior the Guest judgment so may not necessarily be an accurate indication of the pattern that can be expected over the coming years.

It could be said that the case of Winter v Winter is the best-known case that has come out since Guest, and it was interesting to note in that case the Judge, having held for the claimants, decided to give full effect to the promises found when addressing the question of relief.

What this means for farmers

Robert James, Partner in the Thrings Agriculture Litigation team, said: “Disputes over agricultural land and farming businesses can be really damaging when families are involved, with proprietary estoppel cases previously having been difficult to resolve owing to the fact the legal position on relief was open to wide interpretation for a very long time.

“The Guest judgment established some much-needed clarity that is already showing signs of assisting farming families in resolving their differences without needing to resort to the courts.

“It may be a little premature to say whether this is the end to the lively controversy, however, as Winter v Winter is itself subject to an appeal to the Court of Appeal. With the hearing listed for June this year it will be very interesting to see what the Court of Appeal decides.”

Thrings’ Agriculture team is one of the largest of its kind in the UK with decades of experience in successfully supporting its farming and landowner clients to achieve their aims and the potential for their business. Its lawyers are ranked in the highest tier by both the prestigious Legal 500 and Chambers & Partners directories – with Robert James recognised as an expert in proprietary estoppel by both - and have been chosen by the NFU to act for its members in more countries than any other firm.

Find out more about how our lawyers can support farmers, food producers and rural communities on ourInformation for Farmers page.

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