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The principle of estoppel

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What is estoppel?

The Free Online Dictionary describes estoppel as “a legal principle that bars a person from denying or alleging a certain fact owing to that party’s previous conduct, allegation, or denial. In other words, a party agrees to certain facts but later takes a different position to the one taken earlier. He is estopped from reneging on the earlier statement. It is to prevent injustice that the court will use this doctrine to prevent a person from taking the second position. Estoppel could either be legal or equitable, that is estoppel by law and estoppel under equity.

Equitable Estoppel

Equitable estoppel is for the protection of a person in different types of conduct, that are voluntary or where there is silence or acquiescence, or where someone is withholding material facts.

Some specific examples include promissory estoppel, laches where there is inaction or deliberate delays in bringing claims.

What is promissory Estoppel?

The doctrine of promissory estoppel is a form of equitable estoppel that has been introduced to prevent injustice. It is a doctrine that is applied in contract because of the absence of a full contract. In other words the elements of a contract are not met as the consideration is missing. You would recall the elements which constitute a contract. These are offer, acceptance, adequate consideration and no defenses to formation. The party relying on the doctrine must establish that the party by his act and conduct made a promise or assurance, which was intended to affect the legal relationship and to be acted upon. The person who uses the doctrine must establish that, in reliance on the representation he acted on it or in some way changed his position and because of the reliance he is injured or damaged.

Not used often, promissory estoppel was resurrected and made popular by Lord Denning in the case of Central London Property Trust Limited v High Trees House Limited (1947) KB 130. The doctrine is applied where a promise is made and as a result the other party relied on it and acted on it to his detriment. The doctrine as a rule of evidence therefore prevents a party from reneging (going back) on a promise made In a case before the High Court in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Williams v Richards (Claim No. 273 of 2012), the parties were brother and sister each claiming to own their mother’s home. While the claimant owns the property on the basis of a deed of gift, the defendant claimed that his mother had promised to give him the property and based on his reliance he acted to his detriment. Thus he invoked the doctrine of promissory estoppel. He had moved into the house while his mother was alive and on the reliance of the promise he carried out renovations.

The judge referred to established authorities on the issue of detriment. She agreed that detriment does not depend only on the expenditure of money or other means that could be quantified in financial terms, but it is sufficient if the detriment is substantial. On evidence it was proven that it was not possible to claim promissory estoppel because the defendant did not carry out any repairs, the costs having been covered by other family member, and but for a lock, there was nothing substantial. The court ruled that the defendant could not depend on the doctrine of promissory estoppel and it ruled in favour of the claimant who had a deed of gift. This case shows that for the doctrine to apply the evidence must support the claim that a person acted to his or her detriment on the basis of a promise.

Ada Johnson is a solicitor and barrister-at-law. E-mail address is: exploringthelaw@yahoo.com

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