Importance of evidence in promissory estoppel cases


The EWCA has rejected a proprietary estoppel claim by Gary McDonald ('the applicant') on the estate of his deceased parents. 

According to the applicant, his parent's assured him several times over the years that he would receive the bulk of the estate assets if he continued to work for the family farming business in Wales.

There were a number of points from the evidence provided that led the appellate court to refuse permission to appeal.

It was surprising to note from the applicant's oral evidence that there was no change in the terms of the assurances from 1986 to 2013 when his parent's financial circumstances had changed dramatically following the sale of the farm in 1997 for £8.4 million.

The level of work that the applicant undertook was disproportionate with the substantial value of his parent's estates which he was expecting to inherit in full. He did work, unpaid, for his parents in the evenings and weekends but by 2006 had set up his own successful business. 

In order to succeed, the applicant had to establish that Mrs McDonald had given the alleged assurances (as well as her husband) and there was very little corroborative evidence that she had done so.

The Judge at first instance noted the following point from one of the witnesses - Mr McDonald told him that the applicant was his heir apparent and natural successor and that, if anything should happen to him, "Gary should take over the running of the companies with assistance from Craig and myself and that Gary was always to have the majority shareholding to enable him to control the companies". This is clearly directed to control and there is a great difference between the 100% ownership of the companies that the applicant said he was promised and a bare majority holding sufficient to give him control.

The applicant's wife gave evidence which did not accord with the applicant's evidence. Her evidence was simply that 'they would make sure he was looked after'.

This judgment highlights the importance of the strength of evidence in such cases. In this particular matter, the critical difference between inheriting the actual farm (as per the applicant) and the assurances that he would be looked after (as per the majority of the witness evidence) was crucial.

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The trial was heard first in Cardiff in February 2018 by Jarman HHJ, who decided against McDonald, largely on the basis of his findings of fact from evidence given by many witnesses. McDonald appealed, and although his appeal was in principle time-barred, the EWCA has issued a decision explaining why it has refused to hear it.
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