The team discusses the requirements needed for a successful proprietary estoppel claim against trustees of a settlement.
The High Court in Fielden v Christie-Miller and others  EWHC 87 (Ch) has recently ruled that where a claim in proprietary estoppel is made against trusts, the claimant must show that the representation relied upon was made by or on behalf of all the trustees, unless the trust document discharges them of the duty to act unanimously.
The legal proceedings issued relate to two separate trusts. The first was created in 1967 (“the 1967 settlement”) by Charles Wakefield Christie-Miller (“Charles”) and was a settlement of land and various other assets. The trustees were empowered to execute deeds of appointment (documents giving away some of the trust assets) to include, amongst others, Charles’s grandson, Stephen Christie-Miller (“Stephen”), and a family friend, Sam Fielden (“Sam”).
In 2005, the trustees agreed to give Sam a life interest to all assets in the 1967 settlement. However, one of the assets in the 1967 settlement was a farmhouse that had been occupied by Stephen and his family since 1996. At the same time in 2005, the trustees also agreed to give Stephen an assured tenancy for the farmhouse.
To confuse matters, Charles’s son, John, who died in 1999, left a will which created a trust giving Stephen a life interest in his estate, subject to any appointment the trustees may wish to make. In 2007, the trustees executed a deed (“the 2007 trust”), despite the life interest the will created in favour of Stephen, to hold John’s estate (the trust fund which included land adjoining land from the 1967 settlement) and income for Sam absolutely.
Sam therefore issued legal proceedings, claiming that the 2007 trust was valid and that after Stephen’s death, he would receive the farmhouse. Stephen counterclaimed and said that the 2007 trust could not reduce his life interest to the farmhouse and, further, that he had an absolute interest in the farmhouse on the basis of proprietary estoppel.
Stephen asserted that John had promised him the farmhouse and he acted on that promise by moving in, which was to his detriment as he could have chosen another more lucrative lifestyle. Stephen alleged that one of the trustees of the 1967 settlement confirmed this to him. Therefore Stephen argued that he was due the farmhouse on the basis of proprietary estoppel.
Pausing here for a minute, I imagine you are wondering why the above information is necessary (or interesting!) to the background. Essentially the above shows that the situation was extremely complicated regarding who was entitled to the farmhouse.