Can a promise be legally binding?
A family dispute over a property, currently in the High Court, highlights the murky issue of whether and when a promise made by someone can be enforced in law.
The Daily Mail reports that Tudor Marsden- Huggins is suing his mother, Caroleta over a former petrol filling station which had been in the family for some 100 years and is in a severely dilapidated state.
Caroleta has been the registered owner of the property since August 2000 when she inherited it from her late husband.
Her son Tudor claims that since at least 1998 his mother had ‘consistently and repeatedly’ told him and his brother Saxon that they would jointly receive the property before or on her death. He says that on the strength of those promises, since 2014 he has spent £430,000 gaining planning permission for a hotel on the site so it can be kept in the family.
Having fallen out with his brother and mother, Tudor Marsden-Huggins is now the claimant in legal proceedings and is arguing that his mother must pay him ‘his’ half share of the property. He believes that Caroleta is going to sell it on the open market. As an alternative to a 50% share he is asking for an order that he be repaid the £430,000 he invested in the property, plus interest.
So – what are his chances? When can a promise be binding and so enforced by a court?
The law that applies is called ‘proprietary estoppel’ which arises where a representation or assurance is made to the claimant in relation to an interest in land or property. That’s not enough in itself however – the claimant must rely on the promise and suffer ‘detriment’ as a result of his or her (reasonable) reliance on the representation. In addition, it’s necessary for the court to find that it is ‘unconscionable’ for the claimant not to succeed.
These cases often arise in a farming context, so this particular case is an unusual one; as to whether or not Tudor Marsden-Huggins will win – much depends on the evidence he is able to put forward. Proprietary estoppel cases often rely heavily on witness evidence and that can be risky because it’s up to the judge to decide who is telling the truth. In this case, it sounds as though the claimant’s mother and brother are likely to provide a very different version of events to his. However, it’s difficult to understand why Tudor would have spent £430,000 on the property if he didn’t firmly believe he was going to benefit from that investment in the future.
Disputes over property involving families can be explosive, because what’s at issue often isn’t just money. Strong emotions can make it extremely difficult for all the parties involved. Early, specialist and practical legal advice can help to explain not just how the law applies to the facts of the case, but also how best to resolve the issue for everyone involved.