29th April 2019

‘Reap what you sow’ – proprietary estoppel in a farming context

This month has seen judgment handed down in the High Court case of Andrew Guest v David Guest and Josephine Guest, which is the latest in a line of farming proprietary estoppel cases, following Gillet v Holt, Thorner v Major and Suggitt v Suggitt amongst others.

The legal framework for proprietary estoppel can be conveniently summarised by Lord Walker’s formulation in Thorner v Major where he stated that “most scholars agree that the doctrine [of proprietary estoppel] is based on three main elements … : a representation or assurance made to the claimant; reliance on it by the claimant; and detriment to the claimant in consequence of his (reasonable) reliance.”

In Suggit v Suggitt the Court made it clear that it would not take too narrow a financial view of the requirement for detriment.  In that case, even though the claimant had enjoyed substantial benefit living at farm, including rent free boarding and lodging and being allowed to farm and retain the profits, this did not mean there was no detriment.  In the case of Gee v Gee , Briss J found that the requisite detriment was working long hours without adequate compensation and giving up the chance to better himself and work elsewhere.

Following that trend, in the latest case of Guest v Guest, the Court found that on the evidence the claimant had reasonably relied on the defendants’ assurance to his significant financial detriment and that this was obvious from the fact that he worked hard on the farm for many years for little financial reward, even taking into account of the provision of his home at a cottage on the farm and the payment of certain living expenses.

The Court was satisfied that the claimant would not have done so had the defendants not encouraged the idea of an inheritance.  It also reinforced the court’s approach that detriment is to be looked at ‘in the round’ rather than with mathematical precision and found that the claimant had in this case invested what, for many, was a life-time’s worth of work for a very modest reward, which involved him sacrificing the likely prospect of bettering himself elsewhere.

In this case, the claimant was born the eldest son into a traditional farming family in 1966.  He left school in 1982 aged 16 and he began work on the farm the same day.  His brother, Ross, was aged 4 at the time.  The claimant’s case was that no alternative career path was discussed with him.  The claimant’s father accepted that he would be expected to work on the farm and for the next 32 years the claimant lived and worked on the farm where he brought up his family.

The claimant argued that he had positioned his entire life at the farm, working hard in the family farming business, for which he was ambitious, for low wages and with no financial independence or security, because he had been led to believe that he (and his younger brother, Ross) would inherit the farm and he was investing in his own future.  Steps were taken by the defendants to hand over the reins to the claimant in 2012 by making him a 50% partner in the farm. The farming partnership ended in a dispute in circumstances where the claimant’s father failed to give the claimant the independence he had been promised.  The defendants’ subsequent steps of ending the partnership, seeking possession of the cottage where the claimant lived and making new wills disinheriting the claimant entirely were claimed to be an unconscionable reneging on the understanding fostered by the claimant’s father that the claimant was secure at the farm and that he (and his younger brother) would inherit the farm in due course.  At the time of bringing the claim, the claimant was in his 50s and he and his wife had no real assets, no permanent home and, it was asserted, a most uncertain future.

It was held that the claimant had established an equity in his favour and as a result the Court exercised its broad judgmental discretion in an attempt to do what was necessary to avoid an unconscionable result, or, alternatively, to identify the minimum equity to do justice.

In his judgment, His Honour Judge Russen QC decided that the appropriate remedy to satisfy the claimant’s equity was a lump sum payment reflecting broadly:-

1.       50% after tax of the market value of the dairy farming business or of any actual value realised;

2.       40% after tax of the market value of the freehold land and buildings at the farm, or any actual value realised, subject to the defendants’ lifetime interest in the farm (or the value of that interest); and

3.       A percentage share payable to the claimant was to be net of any taxes.

This case therefore shows that the doctrine of proprietary estoppel is alive and well and that the Court will adopt a flexible approach to ensure that, where it needs to, an equitable outcome is achieved.

For advice on this area of the law, please contact Patrick Jenkins, Partner in the Litigation Department or Ben Greaves, Assistant Solicitor on 01730 268211 or email pxj@macdonaldoates.co.uk or bjg@macdonaldoates.co.uk

The contents of this article are for the purposes of general awareness only.  They do not purport to constitute legal or professional advice.  The law may have changed since this article was published.   Readers should not act on the basis of the information included and should take appropriate professional advice upon their own particular circumstances.