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Gillett v Holt & Anor [2000] EWCA Civ 66      Court of Appeal

In 1956 Mr Gillet left school at 15 to go and work on Mr Holt’s farm. His parents had wished he would continue with his education and complete his O and A levels. Mr Holt had never married and had no children. He had taken a liking to Mr Gillet and began to train him up and promised to pass the farming business to him. He made numerous assurances to him throughout his working life that the farm would be his and had drawn up several wills naming him as beneficiary. In reliance on these promises, Mr Gillet accepted a low wage, worked long hours, did not pursue further education or seek work with alternative employers. In 1995, however a dispute arose, Mr Holt sacked Mr Gillet and changed his will to remove Mr Gillet. Mr Gillet sought to rely on proprietary estoppel. The trial judge refused the claim stating that since a will can be changed, there was no irrevocable promise following Taylor v Dickens. Mr Gillet appealed.

Held:

The appeal was allowed. Mr Gillet was entitled to the freehold of the farmhouse and £100,000 to compensate the exclusion from the rest of the farming business.

Robert Walker LJ

In relation to the nature of proprietary estoppel:

“it is important to note at the outset that the doctrine of proprietary estoppel cannot be treated as subdivided into three or four watertight compartments. Both sides are agreed on that, and in the course of the oral argument in this court it repeatedly became apparent that the quality of the relevant assurances may influence the issue of reliance, that reliance and detriment are often intertwined, and that whether there is a distinct need for a 'mutual understanding' may depend on how the other elements are formulated and understood. Moreover, the fundamental principle that equity is concerned to prevent unconscionable conduct permeates all the elements of the doctrine. In the end the court must look at the matter in the round.”

In relation to the irrevocable promise:

“When the judge stated,

"What I am unable to find in the representations reviewed above is anything which could reasonably be construed as an irrevocable promise that the Gilletts would inherit, regardless of any change of circumstances."

he must, it seems to be, have been exaggerating the degree to which a promise of this sort must be expressly made irrevocable if it is to found an estoppel. As already noted, it is the other party's detrimental reliance on the promise which makes it irrevocable. To that extent the judge seems to have misdirected himself as to what he was looking for in the facts.”

Back to lecture outline on proprietary estoppel in land law