Promissory estoppel could not outflank statutory requirements for variation of land sale contracts

Section 2 of the Law of Property (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1989 (the 1989 Act) says:

“(1) A contract for the sale or other disposition of an interest in land can only be made in writing and only by incorporating all the terms which the parties have expressly agreed in one document or, where contracts are exchanged, in each

(5) … nothing in this section affects the creation or operation of resulting, implied or constructive trusts.”

In Dudley Muslim Association v Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council [2015] the starting point was that the Dudley Muslim Association (“DMA”) were under an obligation to re-transfer land to the Council in the event of non-completion of a Mosque development by a contractual deadline.

They alleged that the Council had made representations that they be allowed an extension of time beyond the Scheme getting planning permission and that this amounted to a variation of the contract or was the basis of a promissory estoppel.

The Court of Appeal held that an obligation to re-transfer land to the Council was a contract for the disposition of an interest in land and therefore caught by section 2 (1).

Although the obligation to re-transfer was in the nature of a covenant, it made no difference. It was an executory (and initially conditional) commitment to transfer the freehold to the Council in exchange for a specified sum of money. So the obligation to transfer was within the scope of section 2.

Any variation of a contract that falls within the scope of section 2 must itself comply with the required formalities of that section: McCausland v Duncan Lawrie Ltd [1997]. The DMA could not show that the correspondence from the Council alleged to be the source of the estoppel did comply.

McCausland left open the possibility that estoppel might get round the section, though it would be surprising if one could do by promissory estoppel what one could not do by informal contract.

An “estoppel by convention” arises where parties to a transaction act on an assumed state of facts or law, where that assumption is either shared by both, or, made by one party and acquiesced in by the other party. Here, so long as the assumption is communicated by each party to the other, then each is prevented, or estopped, from denying the assumed facts or law if it would be unjust to allow them to go back on the assumption. Godden v Merthyr Tydfil Housing Association (1997) subsequently held that an allegation of an estoppel by convention could not circumvent section 2.

A “proprietary estoppel” involves something being done by a person which that person believes will give him rights in or over land. For example, putting up a building or making improvements to the land. Here the landowner may be estopped from denying the right or title which that person has assumed to exist. Yaxley v Gotts [2000] held that a proprietary estoppel claim could be brought despite section 2 (1) because such a claim fell within the exception in section 2 (5). But the observations of Lord Scott in Cobbe v Yeoman’s Row Management Ltd [2008] later cast doubt on this:

“The proposition that an owner of land can be estopped from asserting that an agreement is void for want of compliance with the requirements of section 2 is, in my opinion, unacceptable. The assertion is no more than the statute provides. Equity can surely not contradict the statute.”

Though the observations were made as an aside and were not essential to the decision, three other Law Lords in the case had agreed with Lord Scott’s speech.

In the present Dudley case, the Court of Appeal was prepared to assume, for the purposes of argument, that a claim in proprietary estoppel is capable of outflanking section 2. But only because it might fall within the express exception within subsection (5) which was itself part of section 2.

A “promissory estoppel” usually involves a promise, given by one party during the performance of a contract, not to hold the other party to the strict terms of the original contract.

Where, as here, a defence was raised based not on proprietary estoppel but on promissory estoppel there was no question of a constructive trust of land arising. Furthermore since the DMA already owned the land, there was no relevant property which was capable of being held on constructive trust for the DMA.

Unless a case fell within section 2 (5), to admit a defence based on promissory estoppel would be effectively to repeal the section by judicial legislation.

So, even if the DMA had been able to plead and prove a defence of promissory estoppel it would not have overcome the extension of time being void for non compliance with the formalities required under section 2 (1) of the 1989 Act.

This blog has been posted out of general interest. It does not replace the need to get bespoke legal advice in individual cases.