Land Law - Proprietary Estoppel

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Proprietary estoppel protects a person who has a non contractual agreement over land but they have suffered a detriment due to them acting upon a reliance based on an assurance made by the claimant. There has been much discussion in recent case law and academic commentaries as to the elements which make up the nature of proprietary estoppel. Unconscionaibility is a major point for discussion in deciding whether it should be treated as a separate element or if it is linked into the three main elements. This essay will consider and discuss the nature of proprietary estoppel and the two views on unconscionaibility; whether there will always be unconscionaibility if there has been a non-performance of an assurance causing the claimant to suffer a detriment based on the assurance which they relied on or if unconscionaibility should be proven as a separate element in each case. The starting point of proprietary estoppel was in the case of Willmott v Barber (1880) where five criteria were laid down, which had to be satisfied by a person claiming proprietary estoppel and the courts applied these criteria to a wide range of proprietary estoppel claims. However these criteria were criticised for being too strict leading to the broader approach established in Taylor Fashions Ltd v Liverpool Trustees Co Ltd (1982) where Oliver J stated: ‘whether, in particular individual circumstances, it would be unconscionable for a party to be permitted to deny that which, knowingly or unknowingly, he has allowed or encouraged another to assume to his detriment’. Although the approach became broader there still remained essential elements which must be satisfied for a successful claim. The more modern approach towards proprietary estoppel is based on three main elements, firstly an assurance of land or property being made to the claimant, the claimant relying on the assurance which has been made and finally the claimant suffering a detriment as a consequence of relying on the assurance made. The main point for discussion and questioning in proprietary estoppel is the role of unconscionaibility and whether it should be treated as a fourth element which too must be satisfied in order for a claim to be successful or if unconscionaibility is interlinked with the other elements of proprietary estoppel. Proprietary estoppel acts as ‘a sword and a shield’ and can be used in one of two ways. ‘Put positively, the reason why it is possible to use proprietary estoppel to generate a property interest in a favour of a claimant despite the absence of the normal formality rules is because of the need to prevent unconscionable conduct. This is why unconscionaibility is the foundation of estoppel. It is the antidote to the otherwise fatal absence of formality.’ This is one of the views on unconscionaibility which suggest that unconscionaibility is at the heart of proprietary estoppel rather than a separate element of it. The first element of proprietary estoppel is encouragement where the claimant’s belief that they would have some rights over land or property has been encouraged by the promisor and this could have been done actively or passively. Active encouragement is seen in common expectation cases where the claimant has been actively persuaded through an express representation as in Inwards v Baker (1965) where a son was actively encouraged to build on his fathers land in the expectation that it would be his in the future. Common expectation cases are dealt with more generously by judges, compared to passive cases, as the promisor has lead the claimant to have a reasonable belief that they would acquire the land therefore leading them to rely upon that assurance causing them to suffer a detriment. It would be seen as unconscionable in a common expectation case for the claimant to have been encouraged to suffer a detriment for the promisor to then go back on their assurance, meaning that unconscionaibility is instantly a running theme in the elements as it...
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