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Proprietary Estoppel: Winter v Winter – Hugh Sims KC and Michael Selway successful in the Court of Appeal

26/06/2024

On 21 June 2024, the Court of Appeal handed down judgment in Winter v Winter. The decision provides useful and authoritative analysis of the principles and authorities relevant to the detriment stage of proprietary estoppel claims.

This was an appeal against the decision of Mr Justice Zacaroli sitting in the High Court in Bristol in 2023, in which he had found in favour of the claim by the respondents, two sons, to an interest in part of their late father’s estate on the basis of proprietary estoppel, despite their father latterly making a will which purported to leave nearly all his estate to the appellant, his other son. The Judge’s findings that the father had given assurances to his sons to the effect they would be left his share of the family business and its property equally, and that they had relied on those assurances, were not challenged.

The appellant sought to argue, though, against Zacaroli J’s finding of detriment: it was asserted that the respondents needed to plead and prove they forewent an opportunity which overall would have put them in a better position, financially or otherwise, than resulted from reliance on the assurances – whereas here the Judge, while finding the respondents had suffered unquantifiable detriment by committing their working lives to the family business in reliance on the assurances, had found they likely would not have accumulated as much wealth in pursuing alternative careers, and had failed to weigh the latter against the former when assessing net detriment.

Lord Justice Newey, with whom Lady Justice Falk and Lord Justice Moylan agreed, held that the Judge had carried out the necessary, although sometimes difficult, evaluative exercise of weighing non-financial disadvantage, even where unquantifiable, against financial benefit and had made a finding of net detriment in reliance on the assurances given. The Court further found that the Judge was entitled to have made such finding, both on the pleadings and facts of the case and on the basis of authority (including Gillett v Holt, Suggitt v Suggitt, Habberfield v Habberfield and Spencer v Spencer).

Newey LJ held, at para. [52], that: “to succeed in a proprietary estoppel claim, a claimant needs to show sufficiently substantial net detriment of whatever kind. Where, however, a claimant has made a life-changing choice and over many years undertaken work in reliance on an assurance, the Court will probably be prepared to treat loss of opportunity to lead a different life as itself detrimental without requiring the claimant to prove, or itself trying to determine, quite what the claimant would have done and with what consequences… That will not automatically be the case, however. If, say, it can be seen that the claimant has derived considerable financial benefits from working on the farm, those must be weighed against the loss of the ‘possibility of other options’.”

The Court of Appeal decision can be found at [2024] EWCA Civ 699 (and the High Court decision is at [2023] EWHC 2393 (Ch), [2024] WTLR 327). The High Court decision generated national media attention and legal comment, and the Court of Appeal decision is one for practitioners to understand when dealing with claims in the area.

Hugh Sims KC and Michael Selway, instructed by Berensens Solicitors, acted for the successful respondents.

Authors

Hugh Sims KC

Call: 1999 Silk: 2014

Michael Selway

Call: 2007

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