Proprietary estoppel: Farmers' daughter wins claim to family farm

Proprietary estoppel claims are made when someone acts in reliance on a promise, but the maker of that promise later reneges. It's a legal doctrine that is often misunderstood as it requires a number of criteria to be met, some of which can become legally complex. Clarification of the legal position by the courts is always therefore to be welcomed, such as the one featured in this article invoving a farming family from Somerset.

Background to the claim

The High Court has ruled in favour of a farmer’s daughter in a bitter dispute involving a family farm.

The case featured a farming family from Somerset. The claimant was Lucy Habberfield, who is one of four children. Lucy had worked on her parents’ farm since leaving school in the early 80’s. She only stopped working on the farm when a family dispute arose in 2013.

Lucy devoted her working life to the farm following promises from her parents that she would take over the farm when her father retired.

When her father, Frank, died, Lucy expected to be given an interest in the farm.

However, Lucy’s mother, Jane, who inherited the farm when Frank died in April 2014, refused to acknowledge Lucy’s claim.

The proprietary estoppel claim

Lucy therefore commenced legal proceedings against her mother based on the legal doctrine of proprietary estoppel.

Jane defended the claim. She denied that any assurances or promises had been made. Jane said that even if Frank had made Lucy promises she should not be bound by them as she knew nothing about it and as a joint tenant she should have been consulted. 

For Lucy to succeed in her proprietary estoppel claim she had to establish 3 things:

  1. That a promise had been made to her,
  2. That she relied on that promise,
  3. And that she had suffered detriment as a result.

The promises

The court accepted that various promises had been made by both Lucy's parents.

However, the court noted that the family had never discussed a specific date and did not accept that the farm, including the farmhouse in which her parents lived, would be passed to her during while her parents were alive.

Reliance on the promises

The Court agreed that Lucy had relied upon her parents’ promises and this had caused her to remain working on the family farm rather than pursuing other opportunities.

Furthermore, the promises motivated her to work long hours for low pay, taking very few holidays over a thirty year period.

Detriment suffered

The Court accepted that Lucy received below average earnings and worked very long hours. She had just five weeks holiday in thirty years. Lucy’s hard work had been critical to the farm’s success.

The breakdown of the family relationship

In 2008 Lucy had been offered a partnership in the farm. The proposed deal provided for her partner to continue working on the farm as an employee for two years, following which there was a possibility of him also joining the partnership. The proposal was different to the terms Lucy had discussed with her parents earlier and she rejected the offer.

Relations were strained and matters came to a head in October 2013 when following a family argument Lucy and her partner left the farm.

The court’s decision on the proprietary estoppel claim

The court accepted that Lucy had met the criteria for making a valid proprietary estoppel claim.

However it took into account the fact that the farmhouse was Jane’s home. Lucy’s refusal of the partnership offer was also a factor.

Lucy’s equity in the farming business was therefore calculated on the value of the farmland and the farm buildings. In February 2017 this was said to be worth £1,170,000.

The court’s judgement provides helpful information about how future proprietary estoppel claims will be dealt with.

How we can help with your proprietary estoppel claim

We are expereienced in dealing with proprietary estoppel claims and inheritance disputes within farming families.

If you are involved in a farming inheritance dispute, or any other dispute where someone has reneged on a promise then contact us on 0808 139 1599 or send us an email at info@inheritancedisputes.co.uk