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Court of Appeal decision seals fate for Somerset farmer’s wife

Posted on 12 June 2019 by Charlotte Dullaway


The Court of Appeal has confirmed the decision of the High Court in the recent decision of Habberfield v Habberfield [2019] EWCA Civ 890.

In 2018, the High Court ruled in favour of the Claimant in a proprietary estoppel farming claim. Lucy Habberfield brought a claim against her mother, Jane, for the family farm. Lucy had worked at her parents’ farm in Somerset from leaving school until a family dispute in 2013 resulted in her moving away. She alleged, and the Court accepted, that her parents had made promises to her to the effect that if she stayed and worked at the farm for little pay she would receive the dairy farming business when her father was no longer able to run it himself and that she would receive the farm land and buildings following both parents’ deaths.

Proprietary estoppel claims are on the rise and have regularly featured in both the Courts and the media in recent years. They often involve farming families due to the nature of multigenerational farming. The requirements to succeed in a proprietary estoppel claim are as follows:-

1. There must be promises or assurances made to the Claimant;
2. There must be reliance upon those promises;
3. The Claimant must suffer detriment in acting upon the promises;
4. It must be unconscionable for the person making the promise to go back on it.

In the original case, the Court found that Lucy’s parents had promised her the farm and farming business. She had relied upon those promises when staying to work and build up their farm rather than moving to start farming elsewhere on her own. She had suffered detriment as she had worked long hours, took few holidays and received lower wages than she would have earned elsewhere. If not for the promises made to her, Lucy would have built up her own business and so it was found that it would be unfair or unconscionable for her mother to go back on her word.

The Court awarded Lucy £1.17 million. This was calculated to be the amount needed to set up a viable dairy farming business. Jane appealed the decision on several grounds. She argued that as Lucy had rejected an invitation to enter into partnership with her parents it had not been unconscionable for the promises to be rescinded. She also felt that the size of the award was disproportionate to the detriment Lucy had suffered. In the alternative, she argued that it would be inappropriate to force her to pay the award during her lifetime as she would have to sell the farm and leave her home.

The appeal was dismissed. The Court found that Lucy’s rejection of the partnership invitation was only one factor to consider and the award was proportionate when considering the detriment suffered and Lucy’s expectations. Whilst the Court acknowledged that the situation Jane found herself in would be desperately difficult, the decision to require payment of the award during her lifetime was upheld. It was accepted that Jane would have to sell the farm and leave her home of over forty years but it was felt that the situation she found herself in was one of her own making.

Proprietary estoppel claims are fact sensitive and often very complex. If you think you may have a claim our specialist Dispute Resolution team are here to help. Please contact Charlotte Dullaway on 01823 446230 or via email to charlotte.dullaway@pardoes.co.uk to discuss your situation.


Posted in: Dispute Resolution