A substantial landholding
Mr and Mrs Davies had farmed for over fifty years. Starting in 1961, they added to their land over the years, amassing a substantial holding with a dairy led business totalling £3.15 million net of CGT (at 28% on the land) by the time of the claim.
By 17, it was clear that Eirian was the only one of their children to want to take on the family business. This pleased Mr Davies and he told Eirian that she would one day have the farm. In return Eirian understood that she would have to work on the farm, which she did initially for no wages other than board, lodging and money for clothes and leisure.
Four years later, Eirian left after an argument with her father. Although reconciled a year later, arguments between the family members would shape the following years.
In 1990 Eirian returned to the farm with her new husband, carrying out milking, veterinary and general farming work. In 1997, a partnership agreement was drawn up between Eirian and her parents but was never entered into. By 1998, Eirian and her husband were living in one of the farm houses rent free, although they made improvements to the house, for which they were only partially reimbursed. At this time, Eirian was under the impression she was a partner and would be entitled to an equal share in the profits of the business.
In 2001, Eirian left the farm. She had had enough and by her own admission, no longer had any expectations of a future in the business. She had little further involvement until 2006, when she returned after the breakdown of her marriage. This return was short lived after further arguments. Eirian returned at her father’s request on Boxing Day 2007, when he told her that the property would be hers to live in for life.
Eirian worked at the farm for the following four years in return for £1,500 per month, rising to £2,000 per month by 2012. During this time, Eirian was shown a draft will under which she was left the land and buildings and a share in the company. A will was eventually made in which Mr Davies left Eirian his shares in the farming business. Eirian reacted to this angrily and rejected it. The relationship further deteriorated and she left for the last time after a physical altercation in 2012, bringing any expectations on the farm to an end.
In 2013 Eirian brought a claim for an interest in the land and business. She used the doctrine of equitable estoppel to make her claim. That is, she claimed her parents had promised her land and a share of the business. Had she not worked on the farm, she claimed she would have obtained employment working for shorter hours and better pay. The Chancery Court found that Eirian was entitled to some equitable relief and awarded £1.3million as a fair reflection of the expectation and detriment Eirian experienced.
A complicated series of different expectations
The Court of Appeal found that the judge had applied too broad a brush and failed to analyse the facts sufficiently. Eirian’s equity was raised through ‘a complicated series of different, sometimes mutually incompatible’ expectations. In some cases, these expectations had been repudiated or later superseded after walk outs in which Eirian herself admitted to giving up on the farm. This had led to a clear break in expectations. The weight applied to Eirian’s expectations (which the court found to be inflated) had to be viewed in terms of an overall assessment. This gave rise to a more ‘modest’ remedy of £500,000.
Davies v Davies is a claim rooted in a bitter family dispute. However, the principle of proprietary estoppel is one that will concern any landowner: the principle that an interest in land can be created without intention or any formalities. The necessary ingredients are:
- an assurance of sufficient clarity;
- reliance by the claimant on that assurance; and
- detriment to the claimant in consequence of their reasonable reliance.
If such an equity is established, the court must award a remedy necessary to avoid an unconscionable result. Proportionality lies at the heart of the doctrine but there is broad judgemental discretion. This case was an exercise in control of that discretion but it was also a demonstration of how hard it can be to unpick this type of claim, so heavily based in fact. Whichever side of the dispute you sit, the key message to take away from Davies v Davies must be the importance of documenting arrangements properly. Or perhaps that no matter how appropriate the remedy in law, family relationships are often harder to mend.
Case: Davies v Davies case no. A3/2015/0741