Son successful in farm dispute: proprietary estoppel Gee v Gee and another [2018] EWHC 1393 (Ch)

In Gee the Claimant was successful in his claim that his father had made longstanding promises to leave the family farm to him.  The court set aside an earlier transaction gifting the farm to his younger brother.

The case is a further example of the refinement of the principles set out in Thorner v Major [2009].

What was the case about?

As with the majority of proprietary estoppel claims the case concerned a farm worth about £8million

Neves farm was owned by John Gee senior with his wife having a smaller interest.

John Gee senior transferred his interest in Denman’s Farm to his youngest son Robert in 2014 bypassing John Gee junior who had worked on Denman’s Farm since the 1970’s until his recent dismissal.

John Gee junior claimed that he

‘..would inherit the lion’s share of the farm and that he relied on  those representations to his detriment, essentially by devoting his working life to the farm and working long hours for low wages.  The 2014 transfer to Robert was contrary to those assurances and unconscionable.  Based on the doctrine of proprietary estoppel the claimant contends that an equity had arisen in his favour and that to satisfy the equity he should receive the whole farm (land and shares in the company) or at least the company and the lions share in the land”

What did the court decide?

Briss J found in John jnr’s favour applying the three factors in Thorner being

  1. A representation or assurance made to the Claimant
  2. Reliance on it by the Claimant
  3. Detriment to the Claimant in consequence of his (reasonable) reliance

John jnr was assisted in the claim in

  1. The fact that an earlier wills executed by his parents had made provision for him consistent with the promise denied by John snr
  2. Evidence from his mother and sister in support of his position.  His mother had actually transferred to John jnr her interest in the farm so as to rectify the inequity of John snrs transfer to Robert (para 53)
  3. That John snr’s evidence in cross examination conflicted with his witness evidence (see para 66)

In considering detriment the court held that John jnr had (i) worked for long hours without adequate compensation and (ii) given up the chance to better himself and work elsewhere.   In relation to (i) Briss J held that the underpayment was worth around £180,000.

It was argued by the Defendants that John jnr had been compensated by receiving accommodation, the transfer of a smaller parcel of land, the payment of school fees for his children and the transfer from his mother.  This was rejected.

Briss J was satisfied that a proprietary estoppel had been made out over the farm.  In considering the remedy he commented that whilst the principles in Davies v Davies [2016] EWCA Civ 463 and Gillet v Holt [2001] Ch 210 are well established that they are ‘…not always easy to apply’.
The court considered that the £180,000 historical underpayment of salary was modest compared to the value of the farm.    The court therefore transferred across a majority interest in the farm to John jnr.

What are the practical implications of the case
In Davies the Court of Appeal in reducing the award to the Claimant emphasized that proportionality was central to proprietary estoppel.

In Habberfield v Habberfield [2018] EWHC 317 (Ch) and in this case Briss J makes awards to the Claimant substantially above the detriment.    Briss J appears to be persuaded that a strict financial analysis would result in an award that was not proportionate to the expectation which had been built over a long period of time and in circumstances in which the Claimant can no longer pursue alternative employment.

The case is a further refinement of the broad concepts in Thorner.

Practitioners dealing with proprietary estoppel would be advised to also consider

Cobber v Yeomans Row Management [2008] 1 WLR 1759
Davies v Davies [2016] EWCA Civ 463
James v James [2018] EWHC 43
Habberfield v Habberfield [2018] EWHC 317 (Ch)

Adam Draper
14 June 2018