24th April 2018

£1.17 million-pound success for dairy-farming daughter

The High Court has awarded a farmer’s daughter £1.17m as a result of promises made to her over three decades of working on the family farm.

The High Court has awarded a farmer’s daughter £1.17m as a result of promises made to her over three decades of working on the family farm.

Lucy Haberfield was one of four children whose parents owned a 220-acre farm near Yeovil, Somerset. She began working on the farm in the early 1980s and developed a particular interest in dairy farming. Over time, dairy production at the farm increased and ultimately became central to the enterprise.

Lucy continued working on the farm for approximately three decades, including during her pregnancy and while raising her young family. Her husband also often assisted her, at times working on the farm full-time.

However, in 2013 she left as a result of a fight with her sister in the milking parlour. This incident was later followed by her father’s death in 2014, after which the whole farm fell into her mother’s sole ownership.

The promise made to Lucy of becoming the owner of the farm one day was seemingly vanquished.

The law

The relevant law is known as proprietary estoppel, the three elements of which formed the basis of the judge's decision in this case:

  1. There must be a representation (made to someone in Lucy’s position) which can take many forms including assurances and promises;
  2. Someone in Lucy’s position must also show that, as a result of their reliance on the representation, they have suffered detriment;
  3. The court must determine what relief  is appropriate, doing the minimum necessary to satisfy the equity.

Decision

The judge, Mr Justice Birss, was firstly required to consider numerous alleged promises or assurances, which were allegedly made to Lucy including:

  • That on numerous occasions during Lucy’s time on the farm, her father told her “she would take the farm over when he could not do farming any more”;[1]
  • On one occasion, she was told “they are your cows, and if you want them you should milk them”;[2]
  • When discussing the cost of replacing the milk parlour, Lucy’s father told her “it will be up to you when the time comes”;[3] and
  • When Lucy complained about her low pay, her father told her she “could not have the benefit of her hard work both now and in the future”.[4]

Secondly, the judge found that Lucy had suffered detriment as a result of relying on the representations.[5] This detriment included lower pay then she would otherwise reasonably have been expected to earn, long hours, few holidays, and a continued commitment to the farm rather than anywhere else.[6]

In deciding on the appropriate relief, the judge faced the question of whether it should reflect the expectation or should merely compensate Lucy for the detriment suffered.[7] However, given the 30 years of representations, the judge found that she ought to be compensated based on what she was promised. [8]

The judge decided that, as a result of the assurances made, Lucy expected to receive a “viable dairy farm”.[9] This accounted for the fact that she did not realistically expect to inherit every acre of the farm and for provisions to be made for her remaining three siblings. Moreover, the judge was conscious of splitting the farm and of Lucy’s mother losing her home.

The judge therefore declined to award a transfer of property, but ordered a cash transfer for £1.17m (the value of the dairy part of the farm (land and buildings) minus the farmhouse[10] ). This equated to less than half, but significantly more than a quarter, of the total estate (which would have been received had the estate simply been divided equally between the four children). Importantly, a cash transfer at least gave an opportunity for the matter to be resolved without having to split or sell the farm.

Comment

This case follows a line of recently publicised cases, including James v James and Davies v Davies (the ‘Cowshed Cinderella’). The agricultural legal sector has witnessed a recent rise in the number of proprietary estoppel claims being brought over recent years. Its increasing commonality means farmers and owners of land need to be aware of its effects, particularly given the high value of farm land, the aging farming population and potential changes to farm structuring once the detail of the agricultural landscape following Brexit becomes clear.

Russell Reeves is Head of Agricultural Litigation and specialises in disputes about the ownership and inheritance of farms.

[1] Para. 82.

[2] Para. 84 and 85.

[3] Para. 86.

[4] Para. 94.

[5] Para. 157

[6] Para. 207.

[7] Para. 222.

[8] Para. 247.

[9] Para. 206.

[10] Para. 261.

 

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