The claimant, in her 50s, began working on the farm after leaving school and was instrumental in establishing its dairy herd. She milked the cows twice daily and said that she worked 60 to 70 hours a week for meagre wages. After she married, her husband also helped out on the farm. Following a dispute in 2013 the claimant had in fact left the farm. Her father then died in 2014 and bequeathed the whole of his interest in the property to the defendant mother.
The claim was brought based on proprietary estoppel for the whole farm, valued at £2.5 million. Proprietary estoppel requires 'a representation or assurance made to the claimant, reliance on it by the claimant, and detriment to the claimant as a result of his (reasonable) reliance'.
In upholding her claim to a share of the farm a judge found that her father, and sometimes her mother, had on several occasions assured her that her efforts would not be in vain. Their statements to her were not idle or casual remarks and she had relied upon them. By maintaining her commitment to the farm for over 30 years, she had kept her side of the bargain.
Although the judge rejected arguments that she had been promised the entirety of the farm, he found that she was entitled to a lump sum equivalent to the value of certain land and farm buildings. Those assets had recently been valued at £1.17 million!
The judge concluded “The appropriate compensation is a cash payment rather than a transfer of property for two reasons. I am not satisfied it would be fair to require the farmhouse to be split from the rest of the holding. Nor am I satisfied that I should make an order for transfer which inevitably forces Jane to leave her home. It may not be possible to raise the money due without selling all the property but at least by making the award in this way it allows for the possibility.”
So it seems that proprietary estoppel does not give the certainty of a contract, but in cases such as this, where the detriment is significant and continued for many years, a claimant can come away with close to what they were promised.
This case also highlights that a valid Will should be drawn up as early as possible and reviewed upon significant changes to the family circumstances and business structure. It is also important to formulate a succession plan for the business.
Case: Habberfield v Habberfield  EWHC 317