Gillett v Holt (2000)

English Property Law

Gillett v Holt
Image: ‘Folk Art Farm’ by Tony Grote

The notorious ambiguity of estoppel is explored here through the unexpected end of a lifelong working relationship built upon trust, duty and a faith of spirit, and as is so often found in matters such as these, a man’s word is not always his bond.

After investing the best part of forty years into a farming alliance that created an almost familial structure, the arrival of a divisive party witnessed the destructive end of a mutually prosperous and seemingly concrete friendship. When a younger man forged a meaningful relationship with an older farmer, the two men became almost father and son, with the former relying upon, and often following the wisdom of the latter, in accordance with domestic arrangements, career aspirations and even parenting decisions; all while sustaining and enriching the estate’s financial footing through the course of his duties.

This interdependence became the foundation of a commercial enterprise that by definition became more complex, and so required increased investment from both the employer’s paid advisers and the younger man’s wife as a co-contributor. During the many years spent together, there had been a significant number of verbal declarations as to the intentions of the elder man when it came time to choose a successor to his sprawling estates, and it was these quasi-promises, along with multiple wills, that coloured the appellant’s choice-making and calculated reluctance to set aside the type of financial provisions one might ordinarily expect.

The mechanics of the business and associated friendship continued to flourish, until the arrival of a trained solicitor, who for one reason of another, began making spurious claims that the appellant and his wife were defrauding the business, and that legal intervention was ultimately necessary. This course of action and influential advice also led to the couple’s removal from the existing will, whereupon sole beneficial rights instead passed to the now co-defendant.

After an exhaustive cross-examination in the original hearing, the deciding judge awarded against the appellant, despite his claim of proprietary estoppel following the removal of his presence in the will, and inherent reliance upon the goodwill of the defendant during the passage of time.

At appeal, the fluid and therefore often misinterpreted principle of estoppel, was held to close scrutiny, along with the previous findings of the judge; whereupon it became clear that while a degree of effort had been put into the relevance of estoppel, the obvious right to claim had been lost to principles attributable to succession law. Through the delicate use of equity, the Court then agreed that (i) there was ample evidence to show a detriment under continued reliance, and (ii) that in order for a clean break to exist, there needed to be a reversal of fortune on the part of the co-defendant, and a ‘coming good’ on the word of the older man.

White v White (2000)

English Family Law

White v White
‘Land Girls Farming’ by Georgia Fowler

When a committed marriage runs its course, and the two parties responsible have amassed an estate of significant worth, should the ‘Duxbury paradox’ find just approval, or will the virtue of equality prevail?

After spending over three decades together as husband and wife, business partners and parents, the cross-appellants discussed not only invested exorbitant amounts of money into what was termed a ‘clean break’ divorce, but wound up fighting over percentages, whilst losing sight of the objective first presented to the courts.

Having contributed roughly equal amounts of time and capital into a successful farming business, it was felt by the wife that she needed to end the marriage, and strike out alone in a similar field. While on paper the division of assets appeared straightforward, there were anomalies in the form of individual benefit to inheritance by the husband through valuable farming estate and his decision to continue operating the business shared by the two parties, as opposed to liquidation in the wake of annulment.

During the original hearing, the judgment passed disproportionately in favour of the husband, leaving the wife with less than one-fifth of the estate value. This was calculated  through the application of the Duxbury fund principle, as first described in Duxbury v Duxbury. This antiquated approach to approximation of required financial assets is based upon the idea that in order to establish the requisite level of income for the wife in a divorce, the phrase ‘the longer the marriage and hence older the wife, the less the capital sum required for a Duxbury Fund’ will suffice.

Following an unsurprisingly swift challenge, the Court of Appeal sensibly reconsidered the previous judgment, and increased her award to two-fifths of the estate, upon grounds of equality and the principle that the increase in award had now provided sufficient funds (£1.5m) for the wife to not only start her new venture, but have enough to live on without the burden of stress or discomfort. Similarly, the remaining estate was healthy enough for the husband to continue working, albeit with short-term financial help from his extended family.

While taken on it’s weighting, the outcome would appear at risk of bias, however the ethos that divorcing parties should take steps to help each other start afresh, is clearly present where the dissolution of the joint enterprise would have placed the husband at risk of suffering, while the wife enjoyed the benefit of excessive capital for the purposes of need, despite making the choice to depart from a thriving and well-established business.