Thorner v Major

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Thorner v Major
CourtHouse of Lords
Full case nameThorner (Appellant) v Major and others (Respondents)
Citation(s)[2009] UKHL 18, [2009] 1 WLR 776
Court membership
Judge(s) sittingLord Hoffmann, Lord Scott of Foscote, Lord Rodger of Earlsferry, Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe, Lord Neuberger
Proprietary estoppel

Thorner v Major [2009] UKHL 18 is an English land law case, concerning proprietary estoppel.

English land law Law of real property in England and Wales

English land law is the law of real property in England and Wales. Because of its heavy historical and social significance, land is usually seen as the most important part of English property law. Ownership of land has its roots in the Anglo-Saxon system of Bookland and in the Anglo-Saxon multiple estate, a feudal system transformed by William the Conqueror and his influx of many new chief landlords after 1066. The modern law's sources derive from the old courts of common law and equity which includes legislation such as the Law of Property Act 1925, the Settled Land Act 1925, the Land Charges Act 1972, the Trusts of Land and Appointment of Trustees Act 1996 and the Land Registration Act 2002, and the European Convention on Human Rights. At its core, English land law involves the acquisition, content and priority of rights and obligations among people with interests in land. Having a property right in land, as opposed to a contractual or some other personal right, matters because it creates privileges over other people's claims, particularly if the land is sold on, the possessor goes insolvent, or when claiming various remedies, like specific performance, in court. Capital taxation, the industrial revolution and reform of the established church has resulted in a shift from predominant ownership by the church and landed gentry to largely agricultural, minority aristocratic ownership. This means today sites for development belong to a complex web of owners able meet market demand-side forces for development, tempered by supply-side forces including the values enshrined in public planning policy to protect green spaces and promote sustainable, locally diverse and socially useful development of land.

Proprietary estoppel

Proprietary estoppel is a legal claim, especially connected to English land law, which may arise in relation to rights to use the property of the owner, and may even be effective in connection with disputed transfers of ownership. Proprietary estoppel transfers rights if,



On Peter Thorner’s Steart Farm, Cheddar, Somerset, David Thorner, second cousin, worked for Peter for 30 years unpaid, as well as on his parents’ farm, where he got housing and money. He worked long hours and believed he would inherit the farm, encouraged by Peter’s conduct over 15 years, such as in 1990 giving a bonus relating to two assurance policies, saying ‘That’s for my death duties.’ But there was no explicit promise or assurance. Peter left the farm to David, and also money to others. But Peter destroyed the will when he fell out with the others and did not make a new will. So the property passed by statute to the others. David claimed proprietary estoppel.

Cheddar, Somerset village and civil parish in Somerset, England

Cheddar is a large village and civil parish in the Sedgemoor district of the English county of Somerset. It is situated on the southern edge of the Mendip Hills, 9 miles (14 km) north-west of Wells. The civil parish includes the hamlets of Nyland and Bradley Cross. The village, which has its own parish council, has a population of 5,755 and the parish has an acreage of 8,592 acres (3,477 ha) as of 1961.

Somerset County of England

Somerset is a county in South West England which borders Gloucestershire and Bristol to the north, Wiltshire to the east, Dorset to the south-east and Devon to the south-west. It is bounded to the north and west by the Severn Estuary and the Bristol Channel, its coastline facing southeastern Wales. Its traditional border with Gloucestershire is the River Avon. Somerset's county town is Taunton.

Death permanent cessation of vital functions

Death is the permanent cessation of all biological functions that sustain a living organism. Phenomena which commonly bring about death include aging, predation, malnutrition, disease, suicide, homicide, starvation, dehydration, and accidents or major trauma resulting in terminal injury. In most cases, bodies of living organisms begin to decompose shortly after death.

The Court of Appeal [1] (Lloyd LJ, Ward LJ and Rimer LJ) held David had no proprietary estoppel claim because there was never a clear and unequivocal assurance.

Sir Alan Hylton Ward is a former judge of the Court of Appeal of England and Wales.

John Randall QC held David had a right to Steart Farm.


The House of Lords held that the only thing that mattered was whether a reasonable person could have relied on the conduct that looked like an assurance.

Lord Hoffmann said that speaking in oblique and allusive terms does not matter if one could reasonably believe one was being given an assurance. What mattered was whether Peter’s conduct ‘would reasonably have been understood as intended to be taken seriously as an assurance which could be relied upon’. There was no requirement that Peter intended David to rely on him.

Lord Scott held to the view that proprietary estoppel can only be used where the assurer believes they have or will have very soon acquired a right in someone’s land. He said though he would not disagree about proprietary estoppel, he would ‘find it easier and more comfortable to regard David’s equity as established via a remedial constructive trust.’ The elements of a claim are clear assurance, reasonable reliance, substantial detriment. Proprietary estoppel brings uncertain results, e.g. if Peter intended to give up the farm, but before then had wanted to use the farm as a home given his old age. Cases like Ramsden and Crabb can easily be understood as proprietary estoppel, but he finds inheritance cases easier to understand as being remedied through a remedial constructive trust, created by the parties’ common intention, since Gissing. Like Gillett.

Lord Walker held the elements for a proprietary estoppel are (1) a promise or representation by the defendant that the claimant has or will acquire some right in relation to the defendant’s land (2) the claimant’s reasonable reliance on this promise/representation (3) detriment suffered by the claimant by reason of his reliance on that promise/representation.

Lord Neuberger, agreed with Lord Walker, but wished to state the result in his own words.

See also


  1. [2008] EWCA Civ 732

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Royscot Trust Ltd v Rogerson[1991] EWCA Civ 12 is an English contract law case on misrepresentation. It examines the Misrepresentation Act 1967 and addresses the extent of damages available under s 2(1) for negligent misrepresentation.

<i>Crabb v Arun DC</i>

Crabb v Arun District Council [1975] EWCA Civ 7 is a leading English land law and contract case concerning "proprietary estoppel". Lord Denning MR affirmed that where agreements concern the acquisition of rights over land, there is no need for both parties to provide a consideration for upholding the bargain. While promissory estoppel cannot found a cause of action it was held that in the peculiar situation of land, consideration is not necessary at all.

<i>Yaxley v Gotts</i>

Yaxley v Gotts [1999] is an English contract law case with specific relevance to formalities in land law. The case deals with whether section 2 of the Law of Property Act 1989 which requires that contracts be in writing prevents an oral contract from taking effect where otherwise an interest would arise by proprietary estoppel, i.e. whether the provision in subsection 5 on resulting, implied or constructive trusts covers also proprietary estoppel.

Collier v P & MJ Wright (Holdings) Ltd [2007] EWCA Civ 1329 is an English contract law case, concerning the doctrine of consideration and promissory estoppel in relation to "alteration promises".

<i>Jennings v Rice</i>

Jennings v Rice [2002] EWCA Civ 159 is an English land law case concerning proprietary estoppel.

<i>Dillwyn v Llewelyn</i>

Dillwyn v Llewelyn [1862] is an 'English' land, probate and contract law case which established an example of proprietary estoppel at the testator's wish overturning his last Will and Testament; the case concerned land in Wales demonstrating the united jurisdiction of England and Wales.

<i>Taylor Fashions Ltd v Liverpool Victoria Trustees Co Ltd</i>

Taylor Fashions Ltd and Old & Campbell Ltd v Liverpool Victoria Trustees Co Ltd [1979] is a leading case in English land law on proprietary estoppel. Due to a common mistake and no element of enticement to believe that mistake, estoppel was not available on the facts.

<i>Greasley v Cooke</i>

Greasley v Cooke [1980] 3 All ER 710 is an English land law case concerning proprietary estoppel.

<i>Commonwealth v Verwayen</i>

Commonwealth v Verwayen, also known as the Voyager case, is a leading case involving estoppel in Australia. Bernard Verwayen sued the Australian government for damages caused by a collision between two ships of the Australian Navy. A representative of the Government initially indicated to Bernard Verwayen that the Government would not raise the statute of limitations as a defence to their negligence. In court however, the Government relied on this defence. While the decision of the High Court was spilt, a majority of judges found that the Government could not rely on this statement as a defence. Justices Toohey and Gaudron came to this conclusion on the basis that the Government had waived their right to rely on this defence. However, Justices Deane and Dawson came to this conclusion under the doctrine of estoppel, which provides that a defendant can not contradict a previous representation or promise made that has established an assumed state of legal affairs. This case is most frequently referred to in relation to its influence on the doctrine of estoppel.