Be wary of your promises: the tale of the ‘Cowshed Cinderella’
Miss Davies successfully claimed that her parents had promised her that, if she worked at the farm, it would be hers one day. However, following a fight at the farm in August 2012, during which Miss Davies had allegedly had milk poured over her head, prior to her biting her father’s leg, her parents sought to evict her from the farm. Miss Davies countered by seeking to rely on the principle of “proprietary estoppel.”
The principle of proprietary estoppel means that, where promises are made and others rely on those promises to their detriment, then it may be unfair to go back on the promise. If a claim is successful, the person who has relied upon the promise is likely to be entitled to compensation.
Miss Davies claimed that she had suffered a detriment, as she had received no pay for working on the farm up to the age of 21 and for many years following this time she was paid merely £15 per day.
However, her parents argued that Miss Davies had not relied on the promise, nor had she suffered any detriment as a result of working on the farm. Her parents referred to the fact that, on more than one occasion, their relationship with their daughter had broken down and she had moved away from the farm to take up other employment. They also pointed to the fact that, for many years, she lived at the farm rent free.
However, the Court of Appeal agreed with the original decision that Miss Davies did expect to inherit the farm and she had suffered detriment following the promises made to her. As a result, she is reportedly due to receive an award equalling roughly one-third of the value of the farm, to enable her to set up her own farming business.
This case highlights issues that can arise if promises are made about the future inheritance of a family farm. For many families it may seem perfectly reasonable to make these promises. However, cases such as this show that, if you make a promise about the inheritance of the farm, in the hope that a child will continue to work on the farm (perhaps for little pay), then it may not be possible for you to go back on that promise. This seems to be the case almost regardless of whether the reasons for going back on the promise may appear reasonable in the circumstances.