Few disputes are as bitter as family disputes and the court is not normally the best place to settle them. A recent case shows how easy it can be for relations between family members to break down.
A young couple's 'grand design' to restore a crumbling listed farmhouse came horribly unstuck when they used the wrong type of slates to reroof the property, incurring the wrath of local planners. They ended up squatting with their four children in the lower floors of the rotting building and in the midst of a bitter family dispute which required a judge's intervention to resolve.
The couple had set their heart on renovating the 16th Century farmhouse, which stood at the heart of an estate which had been in the wife's family for years. However, the local planning authority took enforcement action after the couple replaced the building's traditional 'Collyweston' slates with 'conservation slates'. Restoring the original style of slate would cost £100,000 or more but, by that time, the couple had used up all the money they had set aside for the project.
Desperate to rid themselves of the burden, they wanted to sell the property – a proposal which was strongly opposed by the wife's uncle, who lived in a converted barn on the estate and who had run a timber business there for almost 40 years. He fiercely objected to being 'driven from his home' and proposed that the estate be partitioned in a way that would enable him to stay. He also argued that selling the farmhouse in its tumble-down state and subject to an ongoing planning dispute was the wrong option.
Ordering a sale of the entire estate, the judge noted that family relations had clearly broken down and that there was 'no real hope' of the parties living there together in harmony. Partition of the estate was banned by a restriction in the title deeds and could probably only be achieved 'at considerable expense'. Nor was the judge convinced that the uncle's proposals would provide 'a more acceptable and appropriate solution' for all involved.
In line with the terms of a family trust, the couple would receive 60 per cent of the sale proceeds. The wife's step-mother, who also lived on the estate, and her uncle would each receive 20 per cent.