Stapleford is a picturesque village sitting on the river Till surrounded by the chalk hills of Wiltshire. To the passer by, it would appear a particularly tranquil corner of England.  But in July 2016 it was to see the culmination of a dispute[1] between father and son over Manor Farm, a large 650 acre arable operation which had been run by 4 generations of the Moore family.

The father (and Claimant in the proceedings), Roger, took over running the farm with his brother Geoffrey in the 1960s when it was gifted to them by their father. Additional parcels of land were added to the farm over the years.

Roger’s son, Stephen, the Defendant in the proceedings, begun working on the farm from a young age, starting with evenings, weekends and school holidays.  But after Stephen left school it became full time.

Family disagreements and dissolving partnerships

Following the retirement of Geoffrey and with the onset of memory loss and Alzheimer’s Roger and Stephen started to have a number of disagreements. Proceedings were brought by Roger in order to dissolve the partnership (there was also a company in the farming operation, but its involvement is not relevant to the main issues).

Roger’s illness meant that the claim was pursued by his wife, Pamela (Stephen’s mother), on his behalf.

Stephen claimed that he had been promised the farm from an early age by Roger (as is so often the case), such that by reason of the doctrine of “proprietary estoppel” Roger could not go back on those promises and seek to dissolve the partnership.

Ultimately, Stephen was successful.

The Judge, sitting in the Bristol District Registry of the Chancery Division of the High Court, referred to the Court of Appeal judgment in Davies v Davies [2016] EWCA Civ 463 in which the following principles of law were summarised:

  • The ingredients necessary to raise “equity” are (a) an assurance of sufficient clarity (b) reliance by the Claimant on that assurance and (c) detriment to the Claimant in consequence of his reasonable reliance;
  • Deciding whether an “equity” was raised and how to satisfy it is a retrospective exercise looking backwards from the moment when the promise falls due to be performed;
  • Claims based on proprietary estoppel should not be divided into water tight compartments – the quality of assurances could influence issues of reliance; reliance and detriment are often intertwined and so forth;
  • Detriment need not consist of expenditure of money or other quantifiable financial detriment so long as it is something substantial and must be approached as part of a broad enquiry as to whether repudiation of the original promise is or is not unconscionable;
  • There must be sufficient causal link between the assurance relied on and the detriment asserted and should be judged at the moment when the person who gave the assurance goes back on it;
  • The essence of the doctrine of proprietary estoppel is to do what is necessary to avoid an unconscionable result;
  • When deciding how to satisfy any equity, the Court must weigh the detriment suffered against any countervailing benefits the Claimant has enjoyed as a result of reliance on the assurance;
  • Proportionality lies at the heart of the doctrine and there must be proportionality between the remedy awarded by the Court and the detriment suffered – that does not mean the Court would abandon expectations and seek only to compensate detrimental reliance, but if the expectation is disproportionate to the detriment, the Court should satisfy the equity in a more limited way;
  • In deciding how to satisfy the equity, the Court has to exercise a broad judgmental discretion.

Once again the courts have had to step in where relations within a farming family have deteriorated but unlike Davies v Davies where the Court of Appeal felt that compensation for the detriment was more appropriate, in Moore v Moore, the Judge felt that the minimum equity to do justice was to mirror the arrangements that would have occurred had the dispute not arisen. In effect, he upheld Stephen’s expectation, having satisfied himself that it was not disproportionate to the detriment.

[1] Moore v Moore [2016] EWHC (Ch)

James Burrows is a partner in the dispute resolution team at Stephens Scown specialising in inheritance and trust disputes.  If you have any queries about proprietary estoppel or any other issue then please do contact James on 01872 265100, by email solicitors@stephens-scown.co.uk.