The background to the judgment
Before coming to his conclusions, the learned deputy judge set out his general approach to the evidence at paras -. This section of the judgment deals with the various learned deputy judge's findings as to the evidence of the various witnesses. It is extremely useful from a practitioner's perspective. It draws attention to the importance of avoiding repetition within witness statements, and of limiting the length. It draws attention to the need to avoid the repetition of documents in court bundles. It also highlights the importance of not including comment or opinion evidence in witness statements of fact. Here - and throughout the judgment - the inability of the court to consider on allegations not put in cross-examination and consequently not relied upon is highlighted.
The learned deputy judge also explained the reasons why RM was unable to play much, if any, part in the litigation since late 2012/early 2013, and the reasons for the appointment of a litigation friend at paras -.
The findings of fact
There was a great deal of evidence before the court and, consequently, the findings of fact are lengthy. The general factual findings comprise paras -. In particular, it was found that 'everything points to an over-arching plan under which [SM] would inherit the whole farm and business in due course, and that [SM] was told that this was the case by both [RM] and [GM]' - this was more than a 'mere hope' (para ).
Having reached these general conclusions, the learned deputy judge answered his five questions.
First, SM had established as a matter of fact that he was promised the farm and the business. The learned deputy judge accepted the evidence of SM and his wife, and found it inconceivable that the promises were not made given the over-arching plan. Allegations of bad behaviour made against SM were so trivial as to have no effect. Finally, as a matter of fact, the promises were not mere indications of intention, but promises (paras -).
Secondly, SM had relied to his detriment on the promises. He had based his life on the farm and worked there without any consideration of alternative employment, as he truly believed (and had been encouraged to believe) that he would, in the fullness of time, inherit the farm and the business (para ).
Thirdly, SM had suffered detriment in reliance on the promises. He could have found a role elsewhere, paid far better and with higher quality accommodation; he took no expensive holidays from 1991 until the end of 2011; he did not have a lavish lifestyle, only spending money on good farm equipment; he had long working hours which he would not have had (or would have had additional compensation for) in alternative employment; he had no intention of cashing-in and becoming a wealthy man; the cars belonged to the partnership; his income was modest and a sizeable proportion was put into a pension; and his family's simple lifestyle could not in any event not be attributed solely to his work on the farm (para ). As SM was not challenged on this in oral evidence, the learned deputy judge found it sufficient to dispose of any objections to detriment (para ). In any event, nothing else raised by RM altered the learned deputy judge's conclusion (paras -).
Fourthly, it would be unconscionable for SM not to receive RM's share (paras -). It was immaterial that SM had already received GM's share, as the issue was to do with whether it would be unconscionable for RM to renege on his promise concerning his own share, rather than GM's share. Any 'bad behaviour' on SM's part was so trivial as could not defeat his claim. The competing moral and legal claims on RM's estate were to be taken into account when considering how the equity should be satisfied.
Finally, the learned deputy judge adopted the cautious approach and the requirement to award no more than the minimum equity needed to do justice. The starting point was the finding of fact as to the promises. SM had been told that 'the farm and the farming assets of the partnership which, following the incorporation of [TVCL], have included the farming assets of [TVCL] would be his one day ... in the fullness of time take over [RM]'s role in the farming enterprise, and that, upon the later of [RM]'s or [RM's wife]'s, [SM] would inherit [RM]'s interest in the farm (including for the avoidance of doubt [RM]'s interest under the partnership) and the farm assets, to become the fourth generation custodian of the farm by the Moore family'. A declaration was sought that '[RM]'s interest in the farm and the farm assets is subject to an equity in favour of [SM].' The learned deputy judge agreed that, in exercising his discretion, he should mirror as closely as possible the arrangements which would have been obtained had the dispute not arisen.
SM was entitled to an equitable interest in RM's share of the farm and the assets, including RM's current and capital accounts, his share of the TVCL cash and profits, and his director's loan account. However, both RM and his wife should continue to receive what they were intending and expecting up until their deaths, and they should remain at the farmhouse for as long as met their needs, with SM responsible for maintenance and repair, and further consequential provision. This was a just and equitable outcome, and proportionate to the detriment (paras -).
An ancillary matter: the partnership
Readers will no doubt be wondering who the claimant was, and why the parties to the litigation were set out above as they were. This was because the claim was initially brought by RM against SM and TVCL seeking dissolution of the partnership, with the proprietary estoppel claim being made by way of Part 20, CPR.
However, the partnership claim occupied a significantly secondary role. The learned deputy judge found that it was a partnership for the joint lives of SM and RM. It was common ground that it should be dissolved, but that could only be on the basis that RM lacked capacity (paras -, ).
Moore does not purport to alter or change the law of proprietary estoppel. However, it is a very good example of the application of settled principles to a complicated case. Practitioners will find the comments throughout the judgment on case presentation and scope of cross-examination useful, particularly in complex, fact-heavy cases.