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'Gillett v. Holt is a watershed in the law of estoppel. The need to

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Introduction

'Gillett v. Holt is a watershed in the law of estoppel. The need to "look at the case in the round" means that many more cases will be successful.' The doctrine of proprietary estoppel is an equitable intervention in cases where the enforcement of legal rights is considered by the courts to be unconscionably unfair. The essence of the doctrine arises, as defined by Snell: '[when] one (A) is encouraged to act to his detriment by the representations or encouragement of another (O) so that it would be unconscionable for O to insist on his strict legal rights.' (McGhee, 2000, p.637) In the absence of a written agreement, estoppel acts as an evidentiary tool with which the courts can help ensure fair interaction in property dealings. Proprietary estoppel is a method by which informal arrangements are recognized as being capable of creating proprietary interests. Given that it lies within the domain of equity, the case law indicates a great flexibility in its application, both in the substantive requirements of proof demanded by the courts and in the manner in which the courts will satisfy the equity. It is the first of these aspects of the doctrine that I will examine in this essay. I will look at the shift in the evidentiary requirements and what a representation (or an assurance of rights), a reliance (a change of position on the basis of that assurance) ...read more.

Middle

Equitable remedies are always subject to a compromise between the certainty craved in law and a level of flexibility that allows the courts of equity to respond to the injustices they were designed to rectify. Oliver J didn't intend a proliferation of cases or even an artificially heightened rate of success, but rather to set a more flexible and equitable method of deciding the validity of cases. An examination of the judicial development of proprietary estoppel suggests that Gillett v Holt is merely a continuation of a 20th century trend, especially in the last 20 years, towards broadening its remit whilst giving greater emphasis to unconscionability as the basis for successful claims. In Jones v Watkins (unreported)7, Slade LJ's judgment contains some important observations about the possibility of proprietary estoppel arising from an equivocal representation: 'The equivocal nature of the promises found by the judge is clearly one relevant factor when considering whether or not it would be unconscionable to permit the administrators to rely on their strict legal title'. Walker (in Gillett v Holt) cites Inwards v Baker to repudiate the argument that there must be a 'mutual agreement' as to the content and method by which an interest may be granted, or any sense of a bargain between the parties (see Yaxley v Gotts (2000)8 per Robert Walker). ...read more.

Conclusion

What must first be acknowledged is that estoppel remains a drastic course of action for a court to allow and the natural restraints of judicial conservatism ensure that the formality of property law will always be paramount. The emphasis upon unconscionability has allowed the courts to conduct a broader examination of the facts without being restrained by the necessary satisfaction of inflexible criteria. Clearly the subjugation of the three criteria to the determination of unconscionability which one can only really infer from them presents a logical difficulty. They are however necessary without being sufficient, and the fluidity of unconscionability as a term allows case by case judgements with a broad discretion. Yet the broadness of the examination by no means implies that the standards of evidence required by the courts have dropped, only that more types of evidence might have relevance. Clearly to reduce the evidentiary standard in regard to the quality required to establish facts would invite more claims and with less to prove, more successful claims. Neither Oliver J in Taylor Fashions nor Walker J in Gillett v Holt give any rise to believe that the bar has been dropped in this regard. All that has been done is to mirror the myriad informal arrangements that may give rise to proprietary estoppel with an appropriately flexible approach; to find a balance between the need for certainty that even equity acknowledges and the discretion that it clearly demands. ...read more.

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