The Proposition That ‘Equitable Estoppel Is a Flexible Doctrine

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The proposition that ‘equitable estoppel is a flexible doctrine... but it is not a joker or wild card to be used whenever the court disapproves of the conduct of a litigant who seems to have the law on his side’ was the starting point for Lord Walker’s judgment in the recent House of Lords decision Yeoman’s Row Management Limited v Cobbe [2008] UKHL 55. In the same case, Lord Scott stated that proprietary estoppel requires ‘clarity as to what it is that the object of the estoppel is to be estopped from denying, or asserting, and clarity as to the interest in the property in question that that denial, or assertion, would otherwise defeat. If these requirements are not recognised, proprietary estoppel will lose contact with its roots and risk becoming unprincipled and therefore unpredictable, if it has not already done so’. Unfortunately, in Yeoman’s Row, the Lords have done little to clarify this difficult area. While subtle and perhaps artificial distinctions have been drawn in an attempt to confine the doctrines of proprietary estoppel and constructive trust, incautious dicta have now cast doubt on some well-established principles. Yeoman’s Row owned a property and entered into an informal oral agreement with Mr Cobbe that Mr Cobbe would apply for planning consent for residential development. Once planning permission was granted, Yeoman’s Row would sell the property to Mr Cobbe for £12m, plus 50% of any gross proceeds of sale of the property achieved after development in excess of £24m. After Mr Cobbe obtained planning consent (at an alleged cost to himself of around £200,000), Yeoman’s Row refused to sell the property to him at the previously agreed price. Both in the present case and in the Court of Appeal it was decided that, by relying on the informal agreement, and by making a substantial investment in the successful planning process, Mr Cobbe had

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