Promissory Estoppel; Doctrine of

The doctrine of promissory estoppel is a doctrine whose foundation is that an unconscionable departure by one party from the subject matter of an assumption which may be of fact or law, present or future, and which has been adopted by the other party as the basis of some course of conduct, act or omission, should not be allowed to pass muster.

And the relief to be given in cases involving the doctrine of promissory estoppels contains a degree of flexibility which would ultimately render justice to the aggrieved party.

Promissory Estoppel

The entire basis of this doctrine has been well put in a judgment of the Australian High Court reported in The Commonwealth of Australia v. Verwayen, 170 C.L.R. 394, by Deane,J. in the following words:-

  • 1. While the ordinary operation of estoppel by conduct is between parties to litigation, it is a doctrine of substantive law the factual ingredients of which fall to be pleaded and resolved like other factual issues in a case. The persons who may be bound by or who may take the benefit of such an estoppel extend beyond the immediate parties to it, to their privies, whether by blood, by estate or by contract. That being so, an estoppel by conduct can be the origin of primary rights of property and of contract.
  • 2. The central principle of the doctrine is that the law will not permit an unconscionable – or, more accurately, unconscientious – departure by one party from the subject matter of an assumption which has been adopted by the other party as the basis of some relationship, course of conduct, act or omission which would operate to that other party’s detriment if the assumption be not adhered to for the purposes of the litigation.
  • 3. Since an estoppel will not arise unless the party claiming the benefit of it has adopted the assumption as the basis of action or inaction and thereby placed himself in a position of significant disadvantage if departure from the assumption be permitted, the resolution of an issue of estoppel by conduct will involve an examination of the relevant belief, actions and position of that party.
  • 4. The question whether such a departure would be unconscionable relates to the conduct of the allegedly estopped party in all the circumstances. That party must have played such a part in the adoption of, or persistence in, the assumption that he would be guilty of unjust and oppressive conduct if he were now to depart from it.

The cases indicate four main, but not exhaustive, categories in which an affirmative answer to that question may be justified, namely, where that party:

  • (a) has induced the assumption by express or implied representation;
  • (b) has entered into contractual or other material relations with the other party on the conventional basis of the assumption;
  • (c) has exercised against the other party rights which would exist only if the assumption were correct;
  • (d) knew that the other party laboured under the assumption and refrained from correcting him when it was his duty in conscience to do so.

Ultimately, however, the question whether departure from the assumption would be unconscionable must be resolved not by reference to some preconceived formula framed to serve as a universal yardstick but by reference to all the circumstances of the case, including the reasonableness of the conduct of the other party in acting upon the assumption and the nature and extent of the detriment which he would sustain by acting upon the assumption if departure from the assumed state of affairs were permitted.

In cases falling within category (a), a critical consideration will commonly be that the allegedly estopped party knew or intended or clearly ought to have known that the other party would be induced by his conduct to adopt, and act on the basis of, the assumption. Particularly in cases falling within category (b), actual belief in the correctness of the fact or state of affairs assumed may not be necessary. Obviously, the facts of a particular case may be such that it falls within more than one of the above categories.

  • 5. The assumption may be of fact or law, present or future. That is to say it may be about the present or future existence of a fact or state of affairs (including the state of the law or the existence of a legal right, interest or relationship or the content of future conduct).
  • 6. The doctrine should be seen as a unified one which operates consistently in both law and equity. In that regard, “equitable estoppel” should not be seen as a separate or distinct doctrine which operates only in equity or as restricted to certain defined categories (e.g. acquiescence, encouragement, promissory estoppel or proprietary estoppel).
  • 7. Estoppel by conduct does not of itself constitute an independent cause of action. The assumed fact or state of affairs (which one party is estopped from denying) may be relied upon defensively or it may be used aggressively as the factual foundation of an action arising under ordinary principles with the entitlement to ultimate relief being determined on the basis of the existence of that fact or state of affairs. In some cases, the estoppel may operate to fashion an assumed state of affairs which will found relief (under ordinary principles) which gives effect to the assumption itself (e.g. where the defendant in an action for a declaration of trust is estopped from denying the existence of the trust).
  • 8. The recognition of estoppel by conduct as a doctrine operating consistently in law and equity and the prevalence of equity in a Judicature Act system combine to give the whole doctrine a degree of flexibility which it might lack if it were an exclusively common law doctrine. In particular, the prima facie entitlement to relief based upon the assumed state of affairs will be qualified in a case where such relief would exceed what could be justified by the requirements of good conscience and would be unjust to the estopped party. In such a case, relief framed on the basis of the assumed state of affairs represents the outer limits withinwhich the relief appropriate to do justice between the parties should be framed.”

The above statement, based on various earlier English authorities, correctly encapsulates the law of promissory estoppel with one difference – under our law, as has been seen hereinabove, promissory estoppel can be the basis of an independent cause of action in which detriment does not need to be proved. It is enough that a party has acted upon the representation made.

The importance of the Australian case is only to reiterate two fundamental concepts relating to the doctrine of promissory estoppel – one, that the central principle of the doctrine is that the law will not permit an unconscionable departure by one party from the subject matter of an assumption which has been adopted by the other party as the basis of a course of conduct which would affect the other party if the assumption be not adhered to. The assumption may be of fact or law, present or future.

And two, that the relief that may be given on the facts of a given case is flexible enough to remedy injustice wherever it is found. And this would include the relief of acting on the basis that a future assumption eitheras to fact or law will be deemed to have taken place so as to afford relief to the wronged party.

{The above discussion on doctrine of promissory estoppel extracted from a recent judgment of the Supreme Court of India in M/s. Manuelsons Hotels Private Limited Vs. State of Kerala dated May 11, 2016 authored by Justice R.F. Nariman}