(1) Stephen Charles Smyth-Tyrrell (2) Beaujolois Katherine Smyth-Tyrrell –v- William Robert Bowden (2018)

Recovery of possession of land by a landlord against his tenant is not always an easy business. In this particular case, the tenants claimed that their lease had the protection of the Agricultural Holdings Act 1986 or the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954; both of those arguments failed. The tenants also finally argued that they had an entitlement to possession of the land by virtue of the doctrine of proprietary estoppel. This is an equitable doctrine which arises where a landowner promises another party that he would receive an interest in his land, in response to which the other party acted to his detriment e.g. in maintaining the land, and as a result, it would be unconscionable for the landowner to renege on his promise.

If the tenants had been successful in their arguments, this would have caused a significant problem for the landlord because the tenants would have had security of tenure under the agricultural legislation or the business tenancy legislation; in addition if the proprietary estoppel had been proven the landlord may have had to transfer the land to the tenants.

The Agricultural Holdings Act 1986 gives certain agricultural tenants security of tenure rights. In this case it was accepted that the land had been previously described as un-farmable; in recent years it had not been farmed; and its buildings had become derelict. Further, the tenants had not sought to put it into a farmable condition. Therefore, it was held that the purpose of the letting by the landlord to the tenants was tourism, not for the carrying out of agricultural activities (as they intended to use the land for the purpose of holiday letting). As a result, not surprisingly it was held not to be an agricultural tenancy.

Secondly, the court considered whether a business tenancy had been created. It was held that it had not because the tenant was not deemed to be occupying the premises for the purpose of a business save for in relation to part of the land. However, the landlord was able to defeat the claimant's claim for a new tenancy of that part because it intended to occupy the land itself (section 30(1)(g) of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954).

The tenants' third argument was that they had always understood that they would be able to stay on the land beyond the term of the letting and that they would ultimately be able to acquire the land.

Proprietary estoppel is notoriously difficult to prove and the court held that the tenants were unable to meet the relevant test as they were not able to point to any particular action or words on the part of the landlord that demonstrated that any promise had been given. In fact the landlord did not even know of the tenants' belief that they could stay as long as they liked and were going to be allowed to acquire the land.

Accordingly judgment for the landlord was given and ultimately the landlord was able to recover possession of the land.

Key points

  • When seeking to recover possession of property it is crucial to understand what type of tenancy has been granted.
  • Simply because a tenancy is not in writing and/or is given a particular label does not determine the type of tenancy that has actually been created. One must consider the letting as a whole, the use of the land as well as what has been put in writing.
  • It is quite easy to inadvertently create a tenancy protected by the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954. Where that is the case, the landlord may well find it difficult to recover possession.
  • Landlords should avoid making any promises to tenants outside of the formal tenancy agreement, as such promises can in limited circumstances prevent the landlord from "backing out" of such promises.