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: Hoffmann LJ said that to claim an estoppel based upon a promise: ‘The promise must be unambiguous and must appear to have been intended to be taken seriously. Taken in its context, it must have been a promise which one might reasonably expect to be relied upon by the person to whom it was made.’ However: ‘in many cases of promises made in a family or social context, there is no intention to create an immediately binding contract. There are several reasons why the law is reluctant to assume that there was. One which is relevant in this case is that such promises are often subject to unspoken and ill-defined qualifications. Take for example the promise in this case. When it was first made, Mrs Walton did not know what the future might hold. Anything might happen which could make it quite inappropriate for the farm to go to the plaintiff.
But a contract, subject to the narrow doctrine of frustration, must be performed come what may. This is why Mr Jackson, who appeared for the plaintiff, has always accepted that Mrs Walton’s promise could not have been intended to become a contract.
But none of this reasoning applies to equitable estoppel, because it does not look forward into the future and guess what might happen. It looks backwards from the moment when the promise falls due to be performed and asks whether, in the circumstances which have actually happened, it would be unconscionable for the promise not to be kept.’
Unreported, 14 April 1994
England and Wales
Cited – 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 . .
Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.
Updated: 15 May 2022; Ref: scu.374701