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Proprietary Estoppel - Daughter who worked on family farm for low wages successful in court

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The High Court has awarded a woman over £1.1 million after she spent 30 years working on her parents’ farm. The Claimant, Lucy Habberfield, successfully argued that she had worked long hours for low wages only because her father assured her she would eventually take it over when he retired.

The case concerned the application of an equitable claim known as ‘proprietary estoppel’. This can occur where that person acts in a certain way, to their own detriment, on the basis of a promise made by another.

The Case

The case of Habberfield v Habberfield [2018] EWHC 317 (Ch) concerned a claim by an adult daughter that she should be granted ownership of the £2.5 million Woodrow farm in Somerset. The claim was brought after the Claimant’s father Frank passed away and her mother inherited the whole of the farm.

The Claimant alleged that she had spent the greater part of 30 years running the dairy farming operations at Woodrow, taking no more than 5 weeks’ holiday during that time. She claimed to have been paid very little, as little as £40 to £50 per week when she first started working on the farm full time in the 1980s and increasing to around £120 per week in the mid-1990s. The Claimant’s husband worked on the farm with her too, eventually leaving his job to work at Woodrow full time in the late 2000s.

At the heart of the Claimant’s claim was her allegation that her father, and to a lesser extent her mother, had repeatedly promised her that she would take over the business when he retired and that she would acquire ownership of Woodrow sometime after that. For instance, she alleged that on a number of occasions after she raised concerns about her wages she was told by her father that she “can’t have it now and then”.

For her part the Defendant, Mrs Jane Habberfield, emphasised that the Claimant enjoyed a number of non-monetary benefits. These included free room and board for a number of years, as well as access to a car.

Critically, the Defendant categorically denied that she or Frank had ever promised their daughter the farm. She also suggested that, even if her husband had made assurances to Lucy, she could not be bound by them. Alternatively, the Defendant argued that transferring the entire farm to Lucy would be disproportionate and at best a modest cash payment would suffice.

The Decision

The decision itself starts with a detailed review of the family history and events running from the 1980s to the present day. Although it is not necessary to go into all the facts in detail, it is worth highlighting the important role played by documentary evidence especially where a key witness has passed away – in this case, the Claimant’s late father Frank. In this case, the Judge seems to have taken a keen interest in a letter from February 2008 from a chartered surveyor who was advising Frank and the Defendant about succession. That letter referred to “Frank and Jane having made clear that it was their desire that Lucy should end up being the owner of the overall farming unit”.

The Judge’s first finding was that Mr and Mrs Habberfield had made assurances to their daughter Lucy that she would acquire the dairy farming operations. He found that the Defendant knew of the promises being made by her husband and that he made these with her authority. These assurances did not however extend to the other farm activities such as the beef cattle or arable activities, or the machinery and contracting business run by the Claimant’s brother.

The second finding was that the Claimant had relied on these assurances to her own detriment. It was clear that the Claimant had devoted her life to working on the farm, even though she had in fact left the farm after an argument with her sister in 2013 and all dairy farming activities had ceased in 2015. Because she worked at Woodrow, the Claimant earned less than she could have elsewhere, and she worked harder than she might have otherwise.

In my view the Judge’s third finding, on what damages the Claimant should receive, is the most relevant one for future cases. The Judge’s best estimate was that, over 30 years, the Claimant had earned £220,000 less than she would have had she worked at another farm. This is what she would get if the Judge gave her damages for her “reliance loss”. However, the value of the dairy farming operations, including the farmland, was closer to £1.17 million – and this is what the Judge awarded her, holding that she should receive what she was promised.

In Mr Justice Birss’ own words:

“Lucy was not being told that she only had to work on the dairy farm for a year or two and then she would inherit it. She was being asked to work on the dairy farm until Frank was no longer capable. When the representations were first made that event was expected to be many years in the future and as it turned out the event was about 30 years away.  In the intervening years, putting it in terms of a reciprocal arrangement, in effect Lucy has kept her side of the bargain.  She did what was asked of her and in my judgment that means that to take an approach whose primary aim is only to compensate Lucy for her reliance losses would not be equitable.  Unless there are strong reasons why not, Lucy ought to receive compensation based on what she was promised, subject to any relevant deductions.  What she was promised was a viable dairy farm at Woodrow.”

Conclusion

The case reinforces the importance of proper estate planning, especially where family life and business life are so closely intertwined. For more information on estate planning, contact our Private Client Department.

Following this decision, parties will want to pay close attention to the evidence they are able to provide. Documentary evidence of longstanding promises or assurances is likely to be of particular interest to the Court, as is any strong evidence of the scope of these assurances.

If you are looking to make or defend a proprietary estoppel, please contact Nicholas Choiniere or our Contentious Private Client Department at nicholas.choiniere@clarionsolicitors.com or 0113 336 3349.

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