Lawlink – What can I do about brother backing out of verbal property agreement?

Photo: Tierra Mallorca/Unsplash.

Q. A year ago I made a verbal agreement with my brother-in-law where I agreed to buy a half-acre site from him, provided I get planning permission for a bungalow. Because of the family connection, we didn’t bother going to solicitors or having any written contracts or letters drawn up. I engaged and paid an engineer to put together a planning application, paid for a percolation hole to be dug, and had to take time off work to attend the planning office to deal with some queries. In all, I paid out €3,500 and finally secured planning permission. My brother-in-law and his wife (my sister) are now having some issues, the result of which my brother-in-law is now backing out of the deal. He says that because there was no written contract I haven’t a leg to stand on, and he now gets to keep the site with the benefit of my planning permission.  Have I any entitlements?

Dear Reader,

The basic rule is that before any contract for the sale of land is legally binding and enforceable, it must be in writing, signed by the parties to the contract, the plot of land to be sold is identified, and any other conditions important to the parties (such as a subject to planning condition) is set out. This requirement arises under the Statute of Frauds Act, which has been in effect for over 400 years.

Therefore, on the face of it because there was no contract in writing or other letter signed by you and your brother-in-law, you have a legal difficulty to force him complete the sale of the site to you.

However, the law also recognises that it would be most unfair and unjust to deny the enforcement of a concluded verbal contract where one of the parties has acted to their detriment in reliance on the verbal deal. This is called the law of Specific Performance.

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In other words, in your situation, you have spent a considerable amount of money in securing planning permission, you have lost out on wages because of the time you put into the planning application and your brother-in-law permitted you on to the site to carry out the percolation test.

Furthermore, your brother-in-law would have had to give his consent to the planning authority for you to make the planning application in the first place. Finally, the value of his land has increased as a result of your successful planning application, at no expense to him.

You would have a strong argument to compel your brother-in-law to honour the verbal contract under specific performance and all is far from lost. Your brother-in-law is wrong when he states that you don’t have “a leg to stand on”.