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Doctrine of Estoppel

Estoppel is a principle of law by which a person is held bound by the representation made by him or arising out of his conduct. The term ‘Estoppel’ is derived from the maxim, “allegans contraria non est audiendus” which implies a person alleging contradictory facts should not be heard, and is the species of “presumptio juris et de jure”, wherein the fact presumed is taken to be true against the party stating the same.

Principle of Estoppel was established in the case of “Pickard v. Sears1)”, wherein a person by his words or conducts induces to another person to believe a fact and subsequently acts according to that belief or to alter his previous position, the accused is barred from later changing his position.

Estoppel is a disability whereby a party is precluded from alleging or proving in a legal proceeding that a fact is otherwise than it has been made to appear by the matter giving rise to that disability. The principle says that a man cannot approbate and reprobate or that a man cannot blow hot and cold at the same time or that a man shall not be allowed to say one thing at a time and different thing at other time. It must be noted that estoppel is only a rule of civil action and has no or limited application in criminal proceedings.

In criminal law, “Issue-estoppel” is recognized. According to this rule, evidence cannot be led to prove a fact in issue as regards which evidence has already been led and a specifis finding recorded at a criminal trial before a court of competent jurisdiction. Thus, it does not constitute a direct ban to the subsequent trial of a person for an offence other than the one arising out of the same transaction, for which such person was on trial previously resulting in acquittal or conviction in such trial. The rule only relates to the admissibility of evidence which is designed to upset a finding of fact recorded by a court at a previous trial.

Estoppel is dealt with in Section 115 to 117 of the Evidence Act. While, Section 115 contains the general principle of estoppel by conduct, Section 116 and 117 are instances of estoppel by contract. However, there are other recognized instances of estoppel, viz., The Indian Contract Act (Section 234), The Specific Relief Act (Section 18), The Transfer of Property Act (Section 41 and 43). Estoppels which are not proved by the Evidence Act may be termed ‘equitable estoppels’.

Kinds of Estoppel

Following are the different kind of estoppels:-

Estoppel by Record

It is mainly concerned with the effects of judgment and their admissibility in evidence, this form of estoppels deals with Section 11 - 14 of the Code of Civil Procedure and Section 40-44 of the Indian Evidence Act. It arises when a judgment has been given by a competent court and due to that a person, who was a party or his representative to the case already decided is estopped to reopen the case. This principle is not used in India but we use the principle of Res judicata to get the same effect. It should be noted that an appeal is considered to be the continuation of the same case and thus it will not come under the principle of Res-judicata.

Estoppel by Deed

When a party has entered into an engagement by a deed claiming certain fact, neither he nor his representatives can contest these facts later. This principle only applies between parties and privies. No estoppels can rise from material, which are non- binding and irrelevant to the matter. If a deed is tainted or fraud, no estoppel can arise from it.

Estoppel by Pais or Conduct

Estoppel in pais arises from an agreement, contract, act or conduct of misrepresentation, negligence and omission which has induced in the change in position in accordance with the acts or conduct of the other party. A man with his words or conduct induces other person to believe a fact and act in accordance with the same, which he would not have otherwise had he been aware of this misrepresentation, the estoppels prohibits the man from denying the existence of these facts. Estoppel in pais is dealt with under Section 115 to 117 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1892.

Pranaya Ballari Mohanty v. Utkal University, AIR 2014 Ori 26

It was said that a university cannot withdraw its results and say it’s wrong after as long as 20 years. The candidate in question had acquired her PhD qualification and she was working as a lecturer. The university was held to have become bound by estoppel, wavier and acquaintance.

Equitable Estoppel

When a person tries to take a legal action that would conflict with his previously given statements, claims or acts, this legal principle would prohibit him from doing so. So, the plaintiff would be stopped from bringing a suit against the defendant who acted pursuant to the commands of the plaintiff. Estoppels which are not covered by the Evidence Act may be termed equitable estoppels. But according to Prof. V.P. Sarathi, this is a misnomer as estoppel was originally an equitable doctrine.

Estoppel by Silence

Where there is an inherent duty of one person to inform the other person of accurate facts and circumstances but remains silent, his failure to discharge this duty will work as estoppels against him. In a scenario there was no duty for the person to speak, no estoppel can be imposed. Silence of such a character which could lead to misrepresentation and subsequent fraud, this would operate as a ground for estoppel.

Estoppel by Acquiescence

When one party, through a legitimate notice, informs the other party about the facts of a claim, and the other party fails to acknowledge it, that is, neither he/she challenges it nor does refute it within a reasonable period of time. The other party now would be estopped from challenging it or making any counterclaim in the future. The other party is said to have accepted the claim though reluctantly, that is, he/she has acquiesced it.

Estoppel by Negligence

Ground of negligence in shown in the plea of estoppel as, the party owned a duty towards the general public or anyone else towards whom he has acted negligently through words or conduct. For plea of estoppel based on negligence to stand, the party must establish that the act of negligence was part of the transaction itself and it should be so connected with the result to which it led that it would be impossible to consider these two separately.

Promissory Estoppel

Doctrine of estoppel has gained a new dimension in recent years with the recognition of an equitable doctrine of ‘promissory estoppel’ both by English and Indian courts. The ‘promissory estoppel’ binds a party by his promise made to the other party, having faith in which the other party has taken an action. The party cannot make contracting or conflicting statements later on, neither he can go back on his words.

Promissory estoppels cannot be invoked if change in the representation made by a government official is beyond his powers. Government agencies are not entirely immune from the operation of promissory estoppels. Government agencies are required to work within the framework of the legal structure. Government agencies are not allowed to backtrack on their promises.

Doctrine of promissory estoppels cannot be build against those agreements which are in contravention of the law. If a promise made by an executive officer is beyond his power, no estoppel can be imposed. A mere promise to make a gift will not create an estoppel. It would require a clear and unequivocal promise to import the doctrine into a matter.

LML ltd. v. State of Uttar Pradesh, (2008) 3 SCC 128

In this case, Supreme Court observed that the doctrine of promissory estoppel is premised on the conduct of one party to another so as to cause the other party to make changes as if the said representation will be acted upon. It provides for a cause of action it need not necessarily be a defence.

Difference between Estoppel & Res Judicata

Estoppel Res Judicata
Estoppel is that rule which prohibits a person from contradicting what was earlier said by him in a court of law. Res judicata is that principle which prohibits the other courts from deciding on the same matter, between the same parties which has already been decided by a competent court.
Estoppel is based upon the rule of equity which is the natural law of the land. Res judicata has been recognized by the law as a legal procedure.
The rule of estoppel looks into the aspects of equity, justice and good conscience. Res judicata deals only with the aspect of public policy.
Estoppel arises from the words or the action or conduct of the party. Res judicata arises out of the decision taken by the court, that is the final decision of the court.
Estoppel bans a person from rebutting what has been once said by him before the court. In this case, the court is banned from hearing the cases which has already been decided by a competent court.
Estoppel prevents the parties from performing certain acts which is denying to what was earlier said by him. Res judicata prevents the court from performing certain action which is dealing with the same case which has already been decided by some other court.
The principle of estoppel has been incorporated from sections, 115 to 117 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872. The principle of Res judicata has been incorporated under section 11 of the Code of Civil procedure, 1908.
Estoppel is implied through the actions or the conduct of the parties. Based on previous decision given by a competent court, Res judicata is claimed by the parties.

Difference between Estoppel & Promissory Estoppel

Estoppel Promissory Estoppel
Representation is made to an existing fact. Representation of a future intention is made.
It is supported by parties consideration. It is supported by parties future conduct and not a consideration.
Estoppel has been dealt in section 115 to 117 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872. There exists no provision in the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 which defines promissory estoppel.
It is only available as a defence It can be used as a cause for action to obtain damages.
Estoppel has been dealt in tort law. Promissory estoppel has been dealt in the Indian Contract Act, 1872.

Exception to Doctrine of Estoppel

There are various exceptions to the doctrine of estoppel:

  1. No estoppel against a minor — Where a minor represents fraudulently or otherwise that he is of age and thereby induces another to enter into a contract with him, then in an action founded on contract, the infant is not estopped from setting up infancy as a plea. However, equity demands that he should not retain a benefit which he had obtained by his fraudulent conduct.
  2. When true facts are known to both the parties - Section 115 does not apply to a case where the statement relied upon is made to a person who knows the real facts and is not misled by the untrue statement.
  3. Fraud or negligence on the part of other party — If the other party does not believe the representation but acts independently of such belief, or in cases where the person to whom representation is made is under a duty to make a further inquiry, the estoppel will not operate. Likewise, if there is a fraud on the part of the other party, which could not be detected by promisor with ordinary care, the estoppel will not operate.
  4. When both the parties plead estoppel — If both the parties establish a case for application of estoppel, then it is as if the two estoppels cancel out and the court will have to proceed as if there is no plea of estoppel on either side. Further, if both sides had laboured under a mistake however bona fide or genuine, the plea of estoppel may not be available.
  5. No estoppel on a point of law - Estoppel refers only to a belief in a fact. If a person gives his opinion that law is such and such and another acts upon such belief, then there can be no estoppel against the former subsequently asserting that law is different. One cannot be estopped from challenging the effectiveness of something (e.g. partition deed) for want of law (e.g. registration). Representations under Section 115 should be of facts, not of law or opinion.
  6. No estoppel against statute/ sovereign acts - A rule of law cannot be nullified by resorting to the doctrine of estoppel. A person who makes a statement as to the existence of the provisions of a statute is not estopped, subsequently, from contending that the statutory provision is different from what he has previously stated. For example, where a minor has contracted by misrepresenting his age, he still can afterwards disclose his real age. It is a rule of law of contract that a minor is not competent to contract and that rule would be defeated if a minor not permitted to disclose his real age. Hence there can be no estoppel against the provisions of a statute.

Estoppel in Evidence Act

Section 115 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, defines the term “Estoppel”. Estoppel is based on the principle that it would unjust, if a person intentionally by conduct or in any other manner has induced other person to believe and act upon such a representation, neither he or those representing can in a subsequent Court proceedings deny the truth. The accused does estoppels through omission, act or declaration. The doctrine established in this section is not a rule of equity rather rule of evidence, applied in the Court of law. The illustration mentioned in Section 115 is the case of “Pickard v. Sears, 1837”.

Following are the three essential ingredients of Section 115 are:

  1. A representation is made by a person to another; Representation of the existence of a fact may arise in any way — a declaration, act or omission. The focus of law of estoppel is the position in law of party who is induced to act. Thus, a person who is estopped or prevented from denying his representation may not have intention to deceive and may himself be acting under mistake or apprehension then the estoppel will nonetheless operate in such cases. Representation of a mere intention cannot amount to an estoppel. A representation as to the legal effect of an instrument (if not ultra vires) will create an estoppel. A representation may also arise from an “omission” to do an act which one’s duty requires one to do. An estoppel will arise when the failure to perform one's duty has misled another and also the duty should be a kind of legal obligation (Estoppel by negligence).
  2. Other person believes it and acts upon such belief thereby altering his position; and It is an essential requirement for the claim of estoppel that the party to whom the representation was made acted upon it by having faith in it. The party must make a change in his position based on the representation made. It has to be ensured that no other party or say, some third party take advantage of representation being made to some party. For example, if X has made a false representation to Y and planting his faith in it, Y has acted upon the representation, then only he can claim the plea of the doctrine of estoppel. Some third party, suppose Z cannot take advantage of the same.
  3. Then in a suit between the parties, the person who represented shall not be allowed to deny the truth of his representation. If the party to whom the representation was being made somehow recognizes that it was a false representation then he would not be entitled to the claim of the doctrine of estoppels.

Estoppel of Tenant & Licensee

Section 116 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 speaks about, “Estoppel of tenant and of license of person in possession”. This section states that during the continuance of the tenancy, the tenant of the immovable property or any person claiming through such tenancy cannot deny to the fact that at the beginning of the tenancy it was the landlord who had the title over the immovable property. Further, the Section also explains that a person who came upon an immovable property by the license cannot deny the fact that the person from whom he got the license, that is, in whose possession the immovable property, had the title at the time when he got his license.

A relationship between a tenant and a landlord can be created either by written contract or verbal contract. The beginning of the tenancy can be marked by the taking of possession of the land, or by the payment of rent, or other circumstances. In licensor- licensee relationship the same rule operates like that in the landlord- tenant relationship. When a licensee obtains the possession through licence cannot deny the title to the licensor unless the relationship ceases to exist.

When Landlord plead Estoppel

In the following situations, the landlord can plead estoppel:

  • When the tenancy itself stands disputed then the tenant can challenge the landlord’s title on the property. The tenant would not be estopped from doing so.
  • In cases where the tenancy has been moved by fraud, coercion, misrepresentation or mistake.

If no such circumstances occur than the tenants would be restricted by the doctrine of estoppel. However, the tenants are always at liberty to overturn the lease or change its status as a lessee.

Estoppel of acceptor of bill of exchange etc

Section 117 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 speaks about, “Estoppel of acceptor of bill of exchange, bailee or licensee”. This section states that the acceptor of the bills of exchange cannot deny the person who is supposed to draw the bills, from drawing it or endorsing it. Also no bailee or licensee can deny the fact that at the time when the bailment and license began, the bailor and the licensor had the authority to make bailment or to give license.

  1. The person accepting the bills of exchange can deny that the bills of exchange were really drawn by the very person who showed to have drawn it.
  2. If the bailor mistakenly delivers the goods to some third party instead of the bailee, he can prove that a third party has the right over the goods bailed against the bailor.

This section demarcates that the person who accepts the bills of exchange although cannot deny that the person drawing the bills has the authority to draw or to endorse it but can deny that the bills were actually drawn by the person by whom it appeared to have been drawn.

A bailee or a licensee cannot deny that at the commencement of the bailment or license the bailor or the licensor have the authority to make the bailment or grant the license. But according to explanation 2 if the bailee delivers the goods to a third person then the bailee will have the right to prove that such person is having the right to such goods other than the bailor. In this section, the bailee and the license are placed in the same position as that of the tenant.

About the Author

  • Adv. Abhishek Gupta (Natraj Legal Solutions)
  • Delhi High Court
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