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Is a Promise Legally Enforceable? 

Posted on 24th October 2023 in Dispute Resolution

Posted by

Martin Laver

Partner and Solicitor
Is a Promise Legally Enforceable? 

Whilst looking down over the farm from the top field, a farmer says to his son “One day son, all this will be yours”.

Fast forward 20 years and the son has been diligently farming the land with his father, for little or no pay, safe in the knowledge he will have a farm and the farmhouse for him and his family to live in, as his father promised. But the father and son have fallen out and are barely speaking.

A further 5 years on and the father has passed away. The will has been changed and the son has been excluded entirely. Can the son do anything?

Potentially yes, says the law of Proprietary Estoppel.

How these situations arise?

All too often, family members make promises to other family members relating to their property. Further, in reliance on those promises and assurances, those family members suffer some kind of detriment in expectation of receiving the specified property or assets.

For example, in the scenario described above, the statement to the son is critical and can amount to a legally enforceable promise. The son relied on this promise, investing time, effort, and resources into the farm with the reasonable expectation of eventually inheriting it.

The son in other circumstances, may not have chosen to invest their time and money into the farm but have looked elsewhere for employment and potentially stewardship of another farm. 

Understanding Proprietary Estoppel

In short, proprietary estoppel is a legal doctrine which addresses situations precisely like the one above. It arises when:

1.    one party makes a clear promise or assurance to another party,

2.    the other party reasonably relies on that promise and

3.    that party suffers a detriment in reasonable reliance.

Proprietary estoppel allows the court to prevent the promisor from reneging on their promise if it would be unconscionable to allow them to do so. 

These sorts of promises are common in farming families, but the principles can apply in any other number of family situations. There does not even have to be a family relationship between the parties; it is enough that the 3-point test above is met.

However, cases are rarely as straightforward as the example above and often there are arguments as to whether the assurance/promise was sufficiently clear and unambiguous, or whether the person making the claim really did rely on the promise to their detriment.

Promises broken during lifetime

There are situations where promises are broken before the person making the promise has died. Provided the Court is satisfied that the 3-stage test is met, it will be open to intervene, if necessary. 

However, how the court deals with enforcing the promise when the promisor is still alive is often more difficult in these situations.

How can Tozers help?

Making a claim of this sort is not easy. The outcome will very much depend on all the circumstances of the case and the strength of the evidence on both sides. We have a team of experts who deal with these claims on a regular basis. 

If you think you might need advice on these issues, please get in contact with one of our specialist Dispute Resolution solicitors who will be happy to help.

Contact our legal experts

Co Authored by Jack Matthews

Company & Industry

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