Between 1992 and 2005 the Claimant worked for the Defendant (his brother in law) renovating properties. He was not paid but he was assured that he would either be paid or receive a property of equivalent value to his work when the Defendant could afford to do so. The arrangement came to an end when the Defendant divorced the Claimant’s sister but the Defendant continued to assure the Claimant on a number of occasions that he would be paid once he had got himself back on his feet after the divorce. In 2015, however, the Claimant discovered that the Defendant had lied to him and it was only then that his claim was denied. Thereafter, the Claimant issued proceedings claiming variously: breach of contract, unjust enrichment and proprietary estoppel.
The Defendant denied the underlying claim but based his application for summary judgment on: limitation and laches, the uncertainty of the condition as to the Defendant’s ability to pay and the lack of sufficient certainty as to the proprietary interest asserted.
Morgan J held:
i) That the oral contract could not be construed as if it were a written document, it concerned a conversation between two brothers in law, nevertheless the Claimant’s case had to be taken at its highest.
ii) It was a possible outcome on the facts, if the pleaded term was too uncertain, that the money was payable on notice and that either no notice had ever been given or if it had been given it had been withdrawn;
iii) The claim in unjust enrichment was properly considered as a ‘failure of basis’ claim, the relevant failure being the Defendant’s refusal to pay in 2015, in that case no limitation defence would be available;
iv) The property to which the assurance related was less certainly identified than in Thorner v Major and the satisfaction of equity lay in the Defendant’s election, these were significant obstacles in the way of the proprietary estoppel claim, nevertheless it was still possible that the claim could be fitted within the requisite principles depending upon the precise view which the trial judge formed of the evidence;
v) Laches required the Claimant to have been guilty of a relevant delay; here the Claimant did not delay once it became clear that his claim was disputed; and
vi) There would be no real value in striking out some but not all of the claims since the facts which underlay them all were the same, better to allow the trial judge to hear the evidence and put upon it the construction which it most naturally bore.