The House of Lords has overturned a judgment of the Court of Appeal that was widely considered to have been unfair, ruling that a Somerset farmer should inherit the farm he worked for many years and which was promised to him.

David Thorner started helping his father’s cousin, Peter Thorner, run his 400 acre farm in Somerset when Peter began to suffer from ill health. What was at first a temporary measure became a lifetime of commitment, as David spent the next 25 years working on the farm without taking a holiday and sometimes working up to 18 hours a day. He was never paid for his work, only receiving a modest allowance from his parents.

Peter Thorner made a will giving various bequests, the main one of which was to give the farm to David. However, he fell out with one of the beneficiaries and revoked the will. He never made a new will. He died intestate in 2005 and his nearer relatives claimed the farm passed to them under the laws of intestacy.

David’s argument that the two men had an understanding that on Peter’s death David would inherit the farm was accepted by the High Court but the decision to award him the farm was reversed in the Court of Appeal, which ruled that although David had a ‘strong moral claim’ regarding the property, it would be a ‘dangerous precedent’ for him to inherit it.

However, the Lords concluded that ‘the Court of Appeal said, correctly, that the fact that Peter had actually intended David to inherit the farm was irrelevant. The question was whether his words and acts would reasonably have conveyed to David an assurance that he would do so’. The Lords decided that ‘it was reasonable for David, given his knowledge of Peter and the background circumstances, to have understood him to mean not merely that his present intention was to leave David the farm but that he definitely would do so’.

The Lords therefore restored the original decision of the judge, awarding David Thorner the farm.