Southwell v Blackburn [2014] EWCA Civ 1347





In 2002, the appellant and the respondent set up home together in a house in Droitwich. They remained unmarried. The property was purchased in the appellant’s sole name with his money alone, and he took on sole responsibility for the mortgage. On the breakdown of their relationship, the respondent claimed that the appellant held the property was held by him on constructive trust for both parties in equal shares. That claim failed before His Honour Judge Pearce-Higgins QC, but her alternative proprietary estoppel claim succeeded. The respondent was awarded £28,500 in satisfaction of the equity. The appellant appealed on three grounds.

First, he contended that the assurances found by the judge lacked requisite specificity to engage the doctrine. The judge had found that the appellant promised the respondent secure rights of occupation, and led her to believe that she would have the sort of security that a wife would have, in terms of accommodation at the house, and income. The appellant contended that the judge had made no attempt to define what precisely was meant by providing her with a secure home and this was contrary to the need for a clear and unequivocal assurance as stated by Lord Scott of Foscote in Thorner v Major [2008] WTLR 1289. Further, he had never assured the respondent that he would provide her with accommodation irrespective of whether the relationship continued to subsist, and that was inconsistent with the judge’s finding that the appellant ‘was prepared to provide a home to the respondent and her two daughters, but it was to be on his terms’.

Second, he contended that the judge had erred in finding that the respondent suffered detriment in reliance upon those assurances. The judge had failed to take into account the fact that the respondent had been relieved of the liability to pay rent in Manchester and had lived rent-free.

Third, the judge had been wrong to find that the appellant had acted unconscionably in denying to the respondent the right or benefit that she expected to receive. The judge had lost sight of the circumstance that this was not a marriage and that it was not a relationship which was expected or intended to endure indefinitely. As the relationship had come to an end, during the course of which the appellant had provided for virtually all of the respondent’s essential financial needs and those of her children, it was not unconscionable for the appellant to require the respondent to leave the house.


  1. 1) The promise must be a right in relation to identified land, and that element was satisfied. A promise that a person may be allowed to stay in a house for as long as he/she wishes potentially raises an equity in his/her favour, as held in Greaseley v Cooke [1981] WLR 1306.
  2. 2) The trial judge had found that what was said by the appellant was said by him in the belief that he was providing the respondent with a home for life. This was inconsistent with any notion that the assurance was of accommodation for only so long as the relationship should subsist.
  3. 3) Just because the appellant avoided any assurance as to equal ownership it did not follow that he could not have given an assurance as to the security of rights of occupation in the house. The two were not inconsistent.
  4. 4) The trial judge had been wise not to be drawn into an exercise of attempted evaluation of benefits which, as he rightly observed, flowed both ways. There was a range of activities and of mutual support which were incapable of financial quantification. Those benefits, flowing both ways, were incidents of the relationship whilst it successfully subsisted, rather than direct consequences of reliance upon the promise as to security.
  5. 5) The detriment to the respondent was that she abandoned her secure home in which she had invested and invested what little else she had in a home to which she had no legal title. It was the detrimental reliance which made the promise irrevocable and led to the conclusion that repudiation of the assurance was unconscionable.
JUDGMENT TOMLINSON LJ: [1] The appellant, David Southwell, appeals against an Order made on 13 December 2013 by HH Judge Pearce-Higgins QC in the Worcester County Court. By that Order the judge ordered him to pay £28,500 to the respondent, Catherine Blackburn. The appellant and the respondent had, in the words of the judge, set …
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Counsel Details

Counsel Ashley Wynne (No 5 Chambers, Fountain Court, Steelhouse Lane, Birmingham B4 6DR, tel 0845 210 5555, e-mail instructed by Harrison Clark Rickerbys Limited (Ellenborough House, Wellington Street, Cheltenham GL50 1YD, tel 01242 224 422) for the appellant.

Cheryl Jones (3 Paper Buildings, Temple, London EC4Y 7EU, tel 020 7583 8055) instructed by Quality Solicitors Parkinson Wright (Haswell House, St Nicholas Street, Worcester WR1 1UN, tel 01905 726 789, e-mail for the respondent.