When does a promise amount to a claim in land?
Farm Land – proprietary estoppel claim fails at the first hurdle.
The recent High Court case of Windsor-Clive and others v Rees  EWHC 3180 (Ch) highlighted the difficulties of making an equitable claim in respect of land, based on promises made by the landowner.
The tenants had been farming land for decades and their tenancies were protected by the Agricultural Holdings Act (AHA)1986. The landowner obtained planning permission for a substantial housing development and sought possession of the farm by serving notices to quit. The tenants challenged the notices, but ultimately the tenants were unsuccessful. When the landowner then made a claim for possession in October 2020, the tenants counterclaimed saying that various promises had been made by the landowner’s agent:
- that no part of the farm would be taken back until it was required to be built on;
- that they would be offered further land on the estate, if available, to continue their farming business; and
- that the landowner would offer fair compensation, enough for the tenants to move on and carry on farming elsewhere.
The tenants argued that they had relied on those promises to their detriment in that they had stayed at the farm, they had not objected to the planning application and had not relocated or changed careers when it would have been easier to do so.
It was noted that these promises had not been raised in earlier proceedings.
What is proprietary estoppel?
In order to successfully argue a case of proprietary estoppel, three main elements must be satisfied (as set out in the case of (Thorner v Major  1 WLR 776):
- There must be a promise or an assurance that is specific and clear;
- The claimant must have relied on that promise; and
- There must be a detriment to the claimant, as a result of their (reasonable) reliance on that promise.
In this case, the tenants claimed that the landowner’s agent had given assurances, or promises, that they had relied on. As time went on it became apparent that there was no suitable land to relocate to on the estate and negotiations for compensation broke down between the parties
Decision of the court
The court looked carefully at the assurances made by the landowner’s agent, but concluded the assurances were not specific or clear. This was because no alternative land had been identified and, in terms of the compensation, there was no evidence about how such an amount would have been calculated or what was likely to have been offered. Accordingly, the claim for proprietary estoppel failed on the first element, as no clear promise was established. As such, the court did not have to consider in any detailed way whether the tenants had relied on those assurances to their detriment.
The case exemplifies the difficulties inherent in a claim for proprietary estoppel and the multiple elements that must be satisfied. In many attempts to claim proprietary estoppel, there will be little independent evidence where verbal assurances have been given. Tenants wanting to protect themselves in these circumstances should seek specific and unambiguous assurances, preferably in writing. If you want to discuss any issues raised by this article, please do get in touch with Kelsie Essenhigh – [email protected].