A daughter who worked long hours for low wages on the understanding she would one day inherit a significant part of the family farm has been awarded more than £1 million in compensation.
The Court of Appeal upheld a High Court decision that promises and assurances made to Lucy Habberfield by her father before his death had indeed been broken.
It ordered her elderly mother Jane to pay Lucy the compensation even though it means she may have to sell up and leave her home of more than 40 years to find the money.
More farming disputes
Disputes of this type – known as proprietary estoppel – are increasingly common in the agricultural world, possibly because farms are so often family concerns handed down from generation to generation sometimes without robust succession planning in place.
The courts have seen an increase in proprietary estoppel cases, both in the number of claims being issued and those making it all the way to the courtroom.
As the majority of these types of family disputes tend to be settled out of court, it gives an indication of the increase in the total numbers being brought and the need for specialist legal advice from the outset.
What happened in this case?
Lucy Habberfield, who’d worked long and hard on the family farm in Yeovil, Somerset for 30 years, first brought her claim in 2018.
She said her dad, Frank, to whom she’d been close, had promised she’d take over the farm when he retired. However, when he died in 2014 leaving the farm to his wife, this didn’t happen and Lucy’s relationship with her mother and sister, already fraught, deteriorated further.
After the High Court ordered that Lucy be paid £1.17 million to compensate her for her devotion to the family farm and its dairy herd, Mrs Habberfield, aged 82, appealed against the ruling.
She asked the Court of Appeal to reduce her daughter’s share to £220,000 to be fair to her three other children.
She also asked the appeal judges to allow Lucy to be paid out of her estate after her death if they ruled the £1.17 million order had to stand.
‘Sad’ and ‘ruinously expensive’
The Court of Appeal dismissed Mrs Habberfield’s appeal describing it as a ‘sad’ and ‘ruinously expensive’ legal battle.
Lord Justice Lewison admitted it was a harsh outcome for her to have to leave her home but added that the ‘desperately difficult situation in which Jane found herself was one of her own making’.
He also dismissed Lucy’s application to have the pay-out increased to £1.6 million.
Open conversations needed
Speaking after the Court of Appeal hearing, Lucy, 51, said: “I’m so sad that our case had to go so far and my advice for other farming families is to get together around the table and talk about what you want to happen to your farms.
“No one likes talking about what will happen after they die, but we are only here once and having a proper, open conversation about it so everyone knows where they stand could save so much misunderstanding and heartache later on.”
Wards Solicitors has a dedicated, award winning Probate Disputes team specialising in these sorts of claims. It is led by Partner Elizabeth Fry, recommended in the independent Legal 500 guide for 2019, for “providing a very strong combination of legal analysis and fact management which works towards the best possible outcome for the client.”