Proprietary estoppel claims in farming matters

The court has dealt with a number of proprietary estoppel claims arising out of familial farming situations. Whilst the court has wide discretion as to how to resolve disputes, an issue that kept ‘cropping’ up was the purpose of the remedy: whether it was to give effect to the claimant’s expectation unless it would be disproportionate to do so, or, whether it was to compensate the claimant for the detriment suffered as a result of reliance on the promises made to them. 

In the long-awaited decision of Guest v Guest, the Supreme Court decided on this important question by majority rule.

Background to Guest v Guest

In 1981, David and Josephine Guest prepared wills providing that their two sons (Andrew and Ross) would inherit their working dairy farm “Tump Farm”, in equal shares, with a small pecuniary legacy made for their daughter, Jan. Andrew began working full time on the farm on low wages, and continued to do so for many years, relying on the promise that he would own a substantial part of Tump Farm following his parents’ death. Andrew subsequently fell out with his parents. They changed their will to cut Andrew out, dissolved the partnership agreement, and asked Andrew to vacate the farm. In the absence of a contract, Andrew brought a claim for an equitable remedy on the basis of proprietary estoppel, for either a share in the family farm or its monetary equivalent, which would, in effect, require the promise he relied on for many years to be performed. 

The High Court case

To establish a claim in proprietary estoppel, the claimant must prove:

  1. the defendant gave an assurance that they had or would have an interest in land, 
  2. they relied on that assurance and acted reasonably in doing so, and
  3. they would suffer detriment were the defendant to resile from their promise.

The High Court agreed that the above elements had been established, and found that Tump Farm should be sold immediately, with Andrew receiving 50% of the farming business and 40% of the proceeds of sale for the farm, subject to certain adjustments. This would have amounted to £1.3 million pounds going to Andrew. 

The Court of Appeal decision

Andrew’s parents appealed the High Court decision claiming that firstly the relief should be based on their intention, rather than what Andrew had expected to receive. Secondly, they argued that Andrew should not be entitled to the sale proceeds whilst the parents are alive, but rather on the death of the second parent.

The Court of Appeal disagreed with Andrew’s parents and found that given the deterioration of their relationship with Andrew, a clean break was required. 

The matter was further appealed and referred to the Supreme Court who decided the case in October 2022.

The Supreme Court judgment

Before the Supreme Court, Andrew’s parents argued that it would have been correct to compensate Andrew for his detrimental reliance, preferring the ‘reliance based’ remedy, valued at £610,000.  This remedy was supported by two of the judges. 

This approach would have put Andrew in the position he would have been had he not relied on the promise to begin with. 

However three judges decided that a ‘promise based’ remedy should be applied. This approach would put Andrew in the position he would have been had the promise been fulfilled to its full value. The court also had to consider how the award should be adjusted considering it was being received earlier than anticipated under the promise. 

The majority vote agreed with the remedy given by the High Court but added that firstly the parents should be given the choice to hold the land on trust for Andrew or if they sell the farm, Andrew would face a discount to reflect the accelerated benefit. 


This resolves a lingering question that has existed for some years. In the future, the starting point will be that the court will look to satisfy the claimant’s reasonable expectation unless it would be disproportionate to the detriment they suffered.  

This is an important decision which shows that the court will not allow the claimant to be put in a better position than if the promise had been fulfilled, and even if a clean break is permitted, there could be a significant discount to account for where the benefit is received sooner rather than later. It highlights the importance of exercising care when making promises about farm ownership (present or future) and the wide discretion that the court holds when dealing with this type of claim.

How Moore Barlow can help

Disputes about wills, estates and trusts can be emotionally charged, particularly when the people involved are family members. When the estate or trust has significant value, the dispute can also be hotly contested.

Our contentious trusts and estates team will work hard to help you put matters right, ideally without having to go to court, whilst using a calm and sensitive approach to help preserve family relationships where possible.