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Habberfield v Habberfield: Successful Proprietary Estoppel Claim ‘Reinforces Importance Of Written Evidence’

Lucy Habberfield Wins Claim With Strength Of Written Evidence In Form Of Letter


Jenny Batchelor, Press Officer | 0207 421 3951

A High Court ruling in a proprietary estoppel farming dispute has prompted will dispute experts at leading national law firm Irwin Mitchell Private Wealth to emphasise the importance of written evidence in the absence of a valid will.

Lucy Habberfield was awarded a lump sum of £1.17m equal to the value of farmland and farm buildings when a judge ruled that she had indeed been promised a significant part of the £2.5m farm after her father, Frank Habberfield, died in 2014. Her mother Jane Habberfield had contested the claim, saying she and her husband had made no such promises to their daughter.

Much of the strength of Lucy’s argument rested on a letter written in 2008 from a surveyor, which detailed plans for Lucy to increase her interest in the farming operation and upon their deaths becoming the overall owner of the farm.  The judge held that this was written evidence of the parents contemplating passing the farm to Lucy which only reflected the assurances they had been giving her in return for her long-term commitment to the farm.

Expert Opinion
“Proprietary estoppel claims are often tricky because when it comes to farming disputes, there’s rarely such a compelling piece of written evidence which supports one party’s argument over the other party.”

“In the Habberfield case the daughter was able to rely on this written evidence in support of her claim that she had been given many assurances over a number of years that the farm would be her own one day. This was clearly a piece of written evidence which helped persuade the Judge that Lucy’s claim was made out.”

“Without this type of critical documentary evidence, the Court is often left having to determine these types of cases largely on the evidence of the witnesses - much of which is rarely neutral.

“The fact that the letter came from a surveyor added even greater weight to the evidence presented, because it was independent of either claimant. It also added weight to the argument that the claimant had a legitimate interest in the business – something she had worked on for 30 years with comparatively low remuneration.”
James Laycock, Partner

Whilst warning that a valid will should be drawn up as early as possible and reviewed upon significant changes to the family circumstances, Irwin Mitchell Private Wealth also warn that when significant assets are involved – not only personal ones, like property, but also commercial ones – it’s as important to formulate a succession plan for the business.

James continued: “Families who own a farm should really consider what belongs to them – often a huge amount of land, a property and a large commercial asset in the form of the farming business. This amount of wealth shouldn’t be left down to a verbal promise between family members: it deserves careful, documented planning.

“We would advise anyone who is in this situation to draw up a will and to regularly update it if there are significant life events, such as a divorce or a death in the family. We also encourage parties to consider and implement a succession structure to ensure that cases such as this one do not end up tearing a family and all its hard-earned assets apart.”

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