Gillett v Holt

English Property Law

Gillett v Holt
Image: ‘Folk Art Farm’ by Tony Grote

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)


The notorious ambiguity of estoppel is explored here through the unexpected end of a lifelong working relationship built upon trust, duty and a faith of spirit, and as is so often found in matters such as these, a man’s word is not always his bond.

After investing the best part of forty years into a farming alliance that created an almost familial structure, the arrival of a divisive party witnessed the destructive end of a mutually prosperous and seemingly concrete friendship. When a younger man forged a meaningful relationship with an older farmer, the two men became almost father and son, with the former relying upon, and often following the wisdom of the latter, in accordance with domestic arrangements, career aspirations and even parenting decisions; all while sustaining and enriching the estate’s financial footing through the course of his duties.

This interdependence became the foundation of a commercial enterprise that by definition became more complex, and so required increased investment from both the employer’s paid advisers and the younger man’s wife as a co-contributor. During the many years spent together, there had been a significant number of verbal declarations as to the intentions of the elder man when it came time to choose a successor to his sprawling estates, and it was these quasi-promises, along with multiple wills, that coloured the appellant’s choice-making and calculated reluctance to set aside the type of financial provisions one might ordinarily expect.

The mechanics of the business and associated friendship continued to flourish, until the arrival of a trained solicitor, who for one reason of another, began making spurious claims that the appellant and his wife were defrauding the business, and that legal intervention was ultimately necessary. This course of action and influential advice also led to the couple’s removal from the existing will, whereupon sole beneficial rights instead passed to the now co-defendant.

After an exhaustive cross-examination in the original hearing, the deciding judge awarded against the appellant, despite his claim of proprietary estoppel following the removal of his presence in the will, and inherent reliance upon the goodwill of the defendant during the passage of time.

At appeal, the fluid and therefore often misinterpreted principle of estoppel, was held to close scrutiny, along with the previous findings of the judge; whereupon it became clear that while a degree of effort had been put into the relevance of estoppel, the obvious right to claim had been lost to principles attributable to succession law. Through the delicate use of equity, the Court then agreed that (i) there was ample evidence to show a detriment under continued reliance, and (ii) that in order for a clean break to exist, there needed to be a reversal of fortune on the part of the co-defendant, and a ‘coming good’ on the word of the older man.

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.

Fitzpatrick v Sterling Housing Association Ltd

English Family Law

Fitzpatrick v Sterling Housing Association Ltd
Image: ‘Time Clock Houses’ by Sunita Khedekar

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The phrase ‘family’ has seen a number of changes over the last century, and so it is that the common law of the United Kingdom is expected to accommodate cultural shifts and the cosmopolitain nature of intimate relationships, when reaching a fair and balanced decision.

In this appeal case, the relationship between a private tenant and potential successor was that of two men, and upon the death of the elder partner, it was found that despite their twenty-year history and the deeply caring bonds between them, the wording of the Housing Act 1988 prevented the surviving party from inheriting the assured tenancy, and thereby remaining in occupation of the home they had shared together.

Because of the widening of interpretation concerning the proximity required to uphold succession, it became possible to appeal to the original judgment, and while the appellant relied upon two sections of the legislation, namely (i) para.2(1) which placed importance on the spousal aspect of relationships, a section which further relied upon the assumption that the two parties were of opposite genders, and (ii) para.3, which extended the right to succeed where those in occupancy at the time of the other’s death could show such living arrangements over a minimum two-year period, while under the scope of ‘family’.

The issue presented to the judges was not one of spousal qualification, but rather agreement that despite the non-traditional relationship between the two men, there did exist an intimacy that by all accounts, could be construed as familial. By applying a number of past and recent precedents, it fell to the five judges to subjectively determine if the statute prescribed by Parliament, contained within it, an ability to embrace the post-modern image of the family unit, without the need for statutory review.

In its conclusion, and somewhat expectedly, there was a fine division of judicial opinion that thankfully provided grace to the appellant, and allowed him to enjoy the home shared with his partner in the years before and leading up to, his passing.