Thorner v Major

English Family Law

Thorner v Major
Image: ‘Farm’ by Denis Pannett

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While of a strictly familial nature, this case relies upon elements of land law and principles of equity for its proximation of fact. After a decade-spanning relationship of trust and obligation observed by the appellant, it falls to the House of Lords to lay to rest the true meaning behind the time shared between two cousins.

The core of this dispute rests within the subjective disparity of those seeking claim to the estate of a private farmer, and the man who knew him probably better than anybody. After growing up and working on his father’s farm, the appellant found himself extending his energies to his older cousin, after witnessing him suffering loss both through death and divorce. Having no children of his own, the cousin had continued to toil the land left him, and in turn looked to the appellant to help manage the considerably extensive freehold.

For one reason or another, the arrangement required no payment exchange, and so it was that until the death of the landowner, the two men worked the farm and developed it further, through an intimate relationship based upon the appellant’s unique ability to understand the emotion and intentions of a man renowned for his narrow vocabulary and deep introspection.

When upon his death, the appellant followed up on his understanding that the farm had been bequeathed him, the claim of succession was contested on grounds of proprietary estoppel, and the ambiguity of true intention displayed by the deceased. There were principally two events that triggered the assumption of his entitlement, namely (i) a gesture that indirectly disclosed the plans of the elder cousin in relation to deaths duties, and (ii) the inherent nature of their close friendship, and the disappearance and subsequent implied revocation of a will drawn up eight years prior to his passing.

Needless to say, the appellant had over the passage of time, made numerous adjustments to his own circumstances, in order that the relationship could sustain the changes discussed and alterations incorporated into the estate; and there were a number of other minor events that further supported his interpretation that he would be the sole successor of his cousin’s farm. Unfortunately for the respondents, the principle of proprietary estoppel relies upon the inability to identify the land discussed, therefore the challenge brought against the appellant was fundamentally flawed, while it was more importantly noted by one of the presiding judges that by all accounts, a constructive trust had by definition, been created through the dealings and partnering of the two individuals during the lifetime of their relationship.

Author: Neil Egan-Ronayne

Author, publisher and foodie...

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