There have been many farming cases in which proprietary estoppel has been pleaded by the claimant; for example Davies v Davies  and, more recently, James v James . In Habberfield v Habberfield , the Honourable Mr Justice Birss, sitting in the Bristol Civil Justice Centre (High Court), presided over another case in this expanding area.
The case concerned Lucy Habberfield, one of four children of Jane and Frank Habberfield, who together owned Woodrow Farm in Yeovil, Somerset, as beneficial joint tenants. It has received some press attention; notably being reported in the Mail Online on 23 February 2018.
Lucy issued court proceedings because, on Frank’s death in April 2014, the farming property passed automatically by survivorship to Jane (in any event, Frank’s will left all of his estate to Jane). By this time, Lucy was no longer working at the farm having had a fight with one of her sisters in October 2013 and had never returned.
Establishing the estoppel
The following criteria must be satisfied in order to succeed with a claim under proprietary estoppel:
- an assurance or promise made by the promisor to the promisee;
- reliance on that assurance by the promisee; and
- the promisee suffering a detriment as a result of such reliance.
Lucy left school in 1983, aged 16, and went to work on the farm where she stayed until 2013 (a period of 30 years). The case centred around the claimant’s argument that she had been assured by her parents, Jane and Frank, that she (Lucy) would take over the farm in the future and, on the basis of many assurances to that effect given over an extended period of time, Lucy had remained at the farm where she was principally responsible for the milking parlour, a significant part of the family business.
Between 1983 and 2008, Lucy had received a number of assurances from her parents that led her to the expectation of receiving, what the judge described as, a ‘viable dairy farm at Woodrow’. Such assurances included:
- encouragement given by Frank to Lucy to start the milking business in 1982/83 (as an example the judge accepted Lucy’s evidence that the milking parlour was even called ‘Lucy’s parlour’ when it was first set up given her interest and enthusiasm in this area);
- statements from both Frank and Jane that Lucy would receive the benefit of her hard work both now and in the future;
- threats that the cows used for milking would be taken away in response to Lucy’s request for time off (the inference being that Lucy would lose the promised fruits of her labour unless she continued to work hard);
- a proposal made to Lucy in early 2008 by Frank and Jane’s financial adviser, on their instructions, which made it clear that Frank and Jane intended Lucy to be the owner of the farm on their deaths (save for some specific dispositions to their other children).
The judge accepted that the assurances given to Lucy were sufficiently clear and that she had relied on them.
As regards detriment, Lucy worked long hours, even during her four pregnancies, and at relatively low pay with very few opportunities for holidays or time-off. It was clear that Lucy had only suffered these conditions in the expectation of receiving the dairy farm and she had invested much of her life into making the milking business a success; such that the judge was convinced that, without her work, ‘there would have been no dairy farming at Woodrow’.
As a result, the judge held that Lucy had been successful in establishing her proprietary estoppel claim and went on to consider the appropriate remedy.
The judge recognised that the court has a broad discretion as regards relief where an equity has been established. Generally, the court may give effect either to the claimant’s expectation or award compensation for the detriment suffered, as discussed in the leading cases of Davies v Davies  and Jennings v Rice .
In this case, the judge considered the value of the farm as a whole as well as its constituent components (ie the farmhouse and the different parcels of land) and took into account, insofar as possible, the benefits which Lucy had already received, such as salary. He concluded that Lucy should be awarded a cash payment of £1,170,000 (out of a total value of £2,550,000 for Woodrow Farm) to reflect her expectation of receiving the dairy farm.
A cash payment was considered appropriate (as opposed to a transfer of property) because the judge did not consider that it would be ‘fair to require the farmhouse to be split from the rest of the holding’. Nor did he consider it fair to make an order that Jane be forced to leave her home. By awarding a cash payment, the option was left open to raise the funds without selling all of the property and balance the interests of the parties.
This case provides a helpful analysis of proprietary estoppel and how the court approaches the application of the law to a specific set of facts.
From a practitioner’s perspective, the judge addressed more niche legal points such as representations or assurances given by joint owners. The judge held that a representation by one co-owner can bind the other co-owners provided that the representation was either made by the other co-owner as well or with their authority.
Also of note is the way in which the judge determined the appropriate relief and the importance of having access to comprehensive valuations for the farm and details of the salary that Lucy should have received against her actual salary.
Ultimately, the judge took into account a wide variety of factors in arriving at his decision and the case shows that each case will be decided on its own facts.