Thorner v Major

English Family Law

Thorner v Major
Image: ‘Farm’ by Denis Pannett

Note: To read about this case in greater depth, and with the benefit of full OSCOLA referencing, simply purchase a copy of ‘The Case Law Compendium: English & European Law’ at Amazon, Waterstones or Barnes & Noble (or go here for a full list of international outlets)


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.

Key Citations

“If it is reasonable for a representee to whom representations have been made to take the representations at their face value and rely on them, it would not in general be open to the representor to say that he or she had not intended the representee to rely upon them.”

“Peter’s representation that David would inherit Steart Farm speaks, at least where Peter remained the owner of an agricultural entity known as Steart Farm, as from his death and if, at that time, evidence were available to identify Steart Farm with certainty, David’s claim to be entitled in equity to Steart Farm cannot, in my opinion, be rejected for want of certainty of subject matter.” 

“[T]his case would, on the factual findings made by the judge and accepted by the Court of Appeal have justified a remedial constructive trust under which David would have obtained the relief awarded him by the judge.”

“[H]owever clear and unequivocal his intention to assure David that he was to have the farm after his death, Peter was always like to have expressed it in oblique language.”

“[I]t is unprofitable, in view of the retrospective nature of the assessment which the doctrine of proprietary estoppel requires, to speculate on what might have been.”

Author: Neil Egan-Ronayne

Author, publisher and foodie...

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s