Michael Spencer v Estate of John Spencer (Deceased) & Ors [2023] EWHC 2050 (Ch)9 August 2023

Published: 15/09/2023 12:55


Rajah J. Proprietary estoppel case involving a farm including approach to detriment and remedy post-Guest.

Applicant Michael Spencer farmed in partnership with his father, John Spencer, deceased, on land owned by John. John’s Will left all his freehold agricultural land to a discretionary trust with a letter of wishes that it be held for the benefit of all of his children and in due course to his grandchildren in equal shares. Previous Wills had left the farmland to Michael. Prior to the last Will, Michael had been diagnosed with MS and John became fixated with the idea that Michael would die and that the grandchildren would need to step up.

Judgment sets out the applicable law e.g. in Re Basham dec’d [1986] 1 WLR 1498; Thorner v Major [2009] UKHL 18; and Gillett v Holt [2001] Ch 210 as to a clear enough promise coupled with detrimental reliance; and Guest v Guest [2022] UKSC 27 – summarised here – on unconscionability and remedy.

Constructive trust pleaded initially but not pursued – fundamentally problematic as based on Michael being beneficial co-owner during lifetime, cf. basis of his proprietary estoppel claim.

Michael’s evidence was about private conversations with his father, not overheard by others, and his father was now dead. Thus careful scrutiny of his evidence was necessary. However, John had told others that Michael was to inherit the land, so it was likely he had also given Michael that understanding. These assurances were intended to be taken seriously and were intended to mollify Michael and ensure he stayed committed to the farm. Theirs had been a difficult working relationship and these assurances were often made to placate arguments. There had been lifelong detriment including being subjected to his father’s control. Living in a cold damp property because his father would not allow him to take money out to buy elsewhere, and he had to give up other ventures under the threat that he would be out of the farm.

It was not possible to put a money value on the unquantifiable detriment of committing to a life to a farm and not building a different life elsewhere, nor recreate a world without the assurances: Habberfield v Habberfield [2019] EWCA Civ 890. Michael should receive all of the land plus the agricultural value a site containing minerals that could be extracted. That was because it was no part of the expectation that Michael should obtain land in order to unlock non-agricultural value, the expectation was to farm agricultural land.

Professional conduct: Criticism of the witness statement provided by Michael’s solicitor as to when the issue of estoppel was filed, which contained assertions not within the solicitor’s recollection. It should not have contained a statement of truth or a conformation of compliance, and should have been corrected.


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