Promises Upon Which Others Rely to Their Detriment Must Be Kept

Promises upon which others rely to their detriment have the full force of contract and must be kept. The Court of Appeal made that point in the case of a dairy farmer who toiled on her parents’ land for 30 years after receiving repeated assurances that the business would one day be hers.

The woman began work on the family farm soon after leaving school and, over the years, was instrumental in building up its dairy business. Her father promised her on a number of occasions that, subject to fair provision being made for her mother and siblings, the farming business would be passed on to her when he was no longer able to run it himself.

Following a bitter family row, however, she resigned. When it became clear after her father’s death that she would not inherit the farm, she launched proceedings against her elderly mother. In upholding her claim, a judge found that she had for decades relied upon her father’s promises to her detriment in working long hours on the farm, for low pay and with few holidays.

The farm had a total value of £2.5 million, but the judge limited the woman’s award to a cash sum of £1,170,000. He recognised that his ruling gave rise to a desperately difficult situation, in that raising the money might well require the farm’s sale and the mother’s departure from the farmhouse. He was, however, satisfied that she would retain sufficient funds to purchase an alternative home elsewhere.

In challenging that decision, the mother pointed out that her daughter had, some years prior to her father’s death, refused her parents’ offer of a partnership in the farm, which would have resulted in her receiving a viable dairy farm in due course. She also argued that the award was out of all proportion to the detriment that her daughter had suffered and that its payment should be deferred until after her death.

In dismissing her appeal, however, the Court found that her daughter’s rejection of the partnership offer did not release her father from his obligation to keep his promises. They had been made with the mother’s knowledge and authority and were thus just as binding upon her. Although the woman’s detriment, in terms of low pay, had been valued at £220,000, the three decades of her life that she had devoted to the farm was incapable of quantification. The woman argued that the judge’s award was too low, but her cross-appeal was also rejected.