The High Court’s spotlight has once again been focused on the farming industry but this time in the context of an inheritance dispute. In Mate v Mate  EWHC 238 (Ch), the Court handed down a 90-page judgement. We explore the matter and the Court’s key points to note.
Shirley Mate and Donald Mate had been married since 1954, up until the death of Donald in 1992. Shirley and Donald had 5 children. Shirley and Donald ran a dairy farm, a milk bottling business and a milk retail business.
In his Will, Donald left his share of the business and his share of other property to Shirley and his two sons in equal shares. Donald’s daughters were to inherit the sum of £36,000 in equal shares.
The family business could not financially survive an outright gift of £36,000. Instead, a gift of 3 cottages were made in substitution. One daughter, Julie, was unhappy with Donald’s Will but did not challenge it at the time.
In 2007, Julie recognised the potential for development of 40 acres of farmland. Following a family meeting with a planning consultant engaged by Julie, it was agreed that Julie (with assistance from the planning consultant) would attempt to have the land’s Green Belt status removed and such land being allocated for housing development by the Local Authority. It was also agreed that if Julie was successful in doing so, the proceeds of sale would be shared equally between Shirley and all 5 children.
Julie worked with the planning consultant between 2008 to late 2015, until the Local Authority’s draft housing plan was published which confirmed that the land had indeed been released from the Green Belt.
Julie informed the rest of the family of this good news but then discovered that Shirley and one of Julie’s brothers had entered into an option agreement with the developer Persimmon. In light of the option agreement, which excluded Julie, she brought a claim at Court.
Julie’s claim had two limbs:
- Proprietary Estoppel Claim
Julie claimed that the family knew of the promises made to her and the steps that she was taking in reliance of such promises. In allowing her to act as she did, Shirley and her brothers should not be allowed to deny her the share she would have received, had the land been sold as agreed.
- Unjust Enrichment Claim
Julie’s alternative claim was that Shirley and her brothers were fully aware of the time, energy and money she spent in trying to secure the outcome she did and, to deny her suitable compensation, Shirley and her brothers had been unjustly enriched.
In respect of the proprietary estoppel claim, the Judge concluded that there were no such promises or assurances with sufficient clarity, such that it would be reasonable for Julie to rely on it.
In respect of Julie’s unjust enrichment claim, the Judge had to decide a number of things such as were Shirley and the brothers enriched? If so, was the enrichment at Julie’s expense? Was such enrichment unjust and was the remedy Julie was seeking appropriate?
The Judge concluded that the evidence presented to the Court allowed for a ruling for unjust enrichment. The question then turned on, what was the appropriate remedy.
It was clear that Julie and her planning consultant had put in significant work to secure the release of the Green Belt which in turn unlocked the land’s potential for development. However, the Judge also needed to consider how much reliance the Local Authority placed on their work and the extent to which it impacted the outcome.
The Judge concluded that Julie’s efforts were significant. After careful consideration of expert and witness evidence, the Judge awarded Julie the sum of £652,500 for her efforts, by comparing her work to those of a land promoter.
Key points to note
There is no set calculation as to how much weight the Court will attach to any one piece of evidence.
The Court noted that it was more likely than not that Julie was motivated by feelings of injustice following her father’s Will and this then created a complex claim some 30 years later. Had Julie obtained early legal advice and addressed her concerns following her father’s death by way of a mediation or out of court discussions, this claim could have been avoided. A pragmatic and commercial approach may have served this family better.
It is also worth noting that claims of this nature have not only a significant financial impact, but a deep, emotional impact. In this case, the family relationship had been completely torn apart to the point of irreparable damage.
As you can see, this area of law can present unique legal challenges, but they also offer opportunities for creative solutions.
Morr & Co can assist you in navigating these complexities effectively, and efficiently. If you have any questions or would like any further information on the content of this article, please do not hesitate to contact our Contested Trusts and Probate team, who will be happy to help.