Thorner v Major and others: HL 25 Mar 2009

The deceased had made a will including a gift to the claimant, but had then revoked the will. The claimant asserted that an estoppel had been created in his favour over a farm, and that the defendant administrators of the promisor’s estate held it under bare trust for him.
Held: The claimant’s appeal succeeded. A proprietary estoppel might be established by acts falling short of an explicit promise, provided that they were otherwise sufficiently clear. A small change in the property need not necessarily destroy such a trust provided the property remained essentially identifiable. In summary: ‘a. An assurance may be sufficient to found an estoppel even if it is not made expressly; it can be made in oblique and allusive terms; it may be subject to unspoken and ill defined qualifications;
b. Of importance is whether the encouragement given was ‘clear enough’ for the person to whom the assurance was made to form a reasonable view that he was being given an assurance that he would inherit the relevant property ;
c. This is an issue of fact heavily dependent upon the context in which the assurance or assurances was or were made (including the characteristics of the protagonists, the relationship between them and whether assurances were repeated and formed part of a pattern) on which evidence to the parties’ subjective understanding of what they were agreeing is admissible;
d. It is unnecessary for the person giving the assurance to know the Claimant was thinking of alternative courses of action at the time the assurances were given; it is also unnecessary for there to have been a dramatic announcement in front of assembled witnesses or a ‘signature event’.’
Lord Neuberger said: ‘It should be emphasised that I am not seeking to cast doubt on the proposition, heavily relied upon by the Court of Appeal, that there must be some sort of an assurance which is ‘clear and unequivocal before it can be relied upon to find an estoppel. However, that proposition must be read as subject to three qualifications. First, it does not detract from the normal principle so well articulated in this case by Lord Walker that the effect of words or actions must be assessed in their context. Just as a sentence can have one meaning in one context and a very different meaning in another context so can a sentence, which will be ambiguous and unclear in one context, be a clear and unambiguous assurance in another context . . Secondly, it would be quite wrong to be unrealistically rigorous when applying the ‘clear and unambiguous’ test. The Court should not search for ambiguity or uncertainty, but should assess the question of clarity and certainty practically and sensibly, as well as contextually . . Thirdly — there may be cases where the statement relied on to find an estoppel could amount to an assurance which could reasonably be understood as having more than one possible meaning. In such a case, if the facts otherwise satisfy all the requirements of an estoppel, it seems to me that, at least normally, the ambiguity should not deprive a person who reasonably relied on the assurance of all relief; it may well be right, however, that he should be accorded relief on the basis of the interpretation least beneficial to him’.
Lord Walker discussed the clarity necessary to found an estoppel: ‘I would prefer to say (while conscious that it is a thoroughly question-begging formulation) that to establish a proprietary estoppel the relevant assurance must be clear enough. What amounts to sufficient clarity, in a case of this sort, is hugely dependent on context.’

Lord Hoffmann, Lord Scott of Foscote, Lord Rodger of Earlsferry, Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe, Lord Neuberger
[2009] UKHL 18, [2009] 13 EG 142, [2009] WTLR 71, [2009] Fam Law 583, [2009] 2 FLR 405, [2009] 1 WLR 776
Bailii, Times, HL
England and Wales
At First InstanceThorner v Curtis and others ChD 26-Oct-2007
The claimant said that the deceased, his father and a farmer, had made representations to him over many years that if the claimant continued to work on the farm, he would leave the farm to him in his will. He died intestate. He claimed a proprietary . .
Appeal fromThorner v Major and others CA 2-Jul-2008
The deceased had written a will, revoked it but then not made another. The claimant had worked for the deceased understanding that property would be left to him, and now claimed that the estate property was held under a trust for him.
Held: . .
CitedRamsden v Dyson HL 1866
The Vice-Chancellor had held that two tenants of Sir John Ramsden, the owner of a large estate near Huddersfield, were entitled to long leases of plots on the estate. They ostensibly held the plots as tenants at will only, but they had spent their . .
CitedClarke v Edinburgh and District Tramways Co HL 1919
The House considered the ability of an appellate court to reconsider the facts.
Held: The privileges enjoyed by a trial judge extend not only to questions of credibility.
Lord Shaw said that the judge enjoys ‘those advantages, sometimes . .
CitedYeoman’s Row Management Ltd and Another v Cobbe HL 30-Jul-2008
The parties agreed in principle for the sale of land with potential development value. Considerable sums were spent, and permission achieved, but the owner then sought to renegotiate the deal.
Held: The appeal succeeded in part. The finding . .
CitedUglow v Uglow and others CA 27-Jul-2004
The deceased had in 1976 made a promise to the claimant. The promise was not honoured in the will, and the claimant asserted a proprietary estoppel.
Held: The judge was right to have found that the promise was bound up with the claimant being . .
CitedGissing v Gissing HL 7-Jul-1970
Evidence Needed to Share Benefical Inerests
The family home had been purchased during the marriage in the name of the husband only. The wife asserted that she had a beneficial interest in it.
Held: The principles apply to any case where a beneficial interest in land is claimed by a . .
CitedDann v Spurrier 1802
The tenant had carried out improvements to the property. It was uncertain whether the length of the term (7, 14 or 21 years) was at the option of the lessee alone.
Held: The case was decided on construction of the lease. Lord Eldon made it . .
CitedGillett v Holt and Another CA 23-Mar-2000
Repeated Assurances Created Equitable Estoppel
Repeated assurances, given over years, that the claimant would acquire an interest in property on the death of the person giving the re-assurance, and upon which the claimant relied to his detriment, could found a claim of equitable estoppel. The . .
CitedIn re Basham dec’d; Basham v Basham 1986
The claimant and her husband had helped her mother and her stepfather throughout the claimant’s adult life. She received no remuneration but understood that she would inherit her stepfather’s property when he died. After her mother’s death and until . .
CitedJT Developments v Quinn and Another CA 1990
The plaintiff told the defendant it was willing to grant a lease on the same terms as those contained in a new tenancy that the plaintiff had recently granted to the tenant of a nearby shop, also owned by the plaintiff. The defendant carried out . .
CitedWalton v Walton CA 14-Apr-1994
The mother had repeatedly promised to her son that he would inherit her farm in return for which he left school early and had worked for low wages. Her stock phrase to him had been: ‘You can’t have more money and a farm one day’.
Held: . .
CitedLayton v Martin 1986
The deceased had written to the Plaintiff offering her ‘what emotional security I can give, plus financial security during my life, and financial security on my death.’
Held: The statement could was insufficient to establish either a . .
CitedCarmichael and Another v National Power Plc HL 24-Jun-1999
Tour guides were engaged to act ‘on a casual as required basis’. The guides later claimed to be employees and therefore entitled by statute to a written statement of their terms of employment. Their case was that an exchange of correspondence . .

Cited by:
CitedGill v Woodall and Others ChD 5-Oct-2009
The claimant challenged her late mother’s will which had left the entire estate to a charity. She asserted lack of knowledge and approval and coercion, and also an estoppel. The will included a note explaining that no gift had been made because she . .
CitedNugent v Nugent ChD 20-Dec-2013
The court was asked whether the court has, following the the 2002 Act, an inherent power to order the cancellation of a unilateral notice registered against a title registered under the 2002 Act and, if so, in what circumstances, and how, such a . .
CitedBradley and Another v Heslin and Another ChD 9-Oct-2014
The parties were neighbours. One had a right of way over the other’s land. A gate existed over it. B wished to close the gate for security, but H wished it open in order to be able to drive through it without having to get out of his car, and so he . .
CitedWright v Waters and Another ChD 6-Nov-2014
The claimant sought provision from her late mother’s estate under the 1975 Act, and asserting a proprietary estoppel. The mother had transferred andpound;10,000 to the daughter several years before. The mother had said it was to be invested on her . .
CitedRawlings v Chapman and Others ChD 3-Nov-2015
In 1992 the claimant paid substantial amounts of money towards the cost of building and fitting out a new house on farmland owned by the deceased, Mr. Hopkins, at Aggs Hill, Cheltenham. She alleged that she did so in reliance on promises, frequently . .
CitedLegg and Another v Burton and Others ChD 11-Aug-2017
Testing for Mutual Wills
The parties disputed whether wills were mutual. The claimants challenged the probate granted to a later will of their deceased mother, saying that her earlier will had been mutual and irrevocable after the death of their father.
Held: The . .

Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Trusts, Estoppel, Wills and Probate

Leading Case

Updated: 31 October 2021; Ref: scu.324694