A dispossessed tenant farmer won an award worth £300,000 yesterday against the landowner who dismissed him after first befriending him and then promising that the would inherit his multi-million pound estate.
The Court of Appeal made the award after hearing that Geoffrey Gillett had been cut off from Kenneth Holt’s will and sacked in 1995 when Mr Holt struck up a new friendship with a young trainee solicitor, David Wood, and decided to leave everything to him.
Mr Gillett 59, claimed that Mr Holt 95, had made an “irrevocable promise” in 1964 that the would inherit the farming estate and that sales of shares would be used to pay off corporation and inheritance taxes.
Mr Gillett who worked as Mr Holt’s farm manager, said Mr Holt treated him like a son until 1992, when he met David Wood who was then 20 on a fishing expedition in Scotland.
When Mr Wood moved into Mr Holt’s farmhouse – The Limes, in Baumber, near Horncastle, Lincolnshire – the relationship between the landowner and the manager soured. It ended with Mr Gillett’s dismissal and his exclusion from Mr Holt’s will in favour of the younger man. Mr Gillett was sent notice to quit the farmhouse, The Beeches which had been his home, by his landlord’s new friend Mr Wood.
A High Court judge, Mr Justice Carnwath, ruled in 1998 that although Mr Holt had made the promises, Mr Gillett and his wife, Sally could never have expected that he would never change his mind.
But after a three-day appeal hearing. Lords Justices Beldam, Walker and Robert Walker reversed the ruling and accepted Mr Gillett’s claim that Mr Holt’s promises amounted to an agreement which he must fulfil.
Lord Justice Robert Walker, giving the ruling, said that Mr Holt’s assurances had been “repeated over a long period” and were unambiguous”. “Mr and Mrs Gillett are to be entitled to the freehold of the whole of The Beeches (the farmhouse and 103 acres), together with the sum of £100,000 to compensate for the exclusion of Mr Gillett from all the rest of the farming business,” he ruled.
Mr Gillett said at his home after hearing the decision that he was delighted that the justice had been done after a five year legal battle. “Finally there is recognition of the fact that I devoted the best years of my life to Mr Holt and his farm and did everything which I could do to provide him with the support of a close and loving family which he so plainly lacked.”
Patrick Gordingley, the couple’s solicitors, added: “This was a challenging and fascinating case, which has made legal history.” He said there had never been a challenge of this kind involving someone who was still alive. Mr Cordingley estimated that Mr Holt and Mr Wood were facing a £300,000 bill.
Mr Holt a bachelor, began his farming career in 1936 on 536 acres at The Limes, using money inherited from an £8 million family trust founded on his grandfather’s Liverpool shipping fortune. He met Mr Gillett in 1952 when Mr Gillett was 12 and earning pocket money acting as a caddie at a golf club. Mr Gillett went to work at the farm in 1956 and moved in to live at The Limes the following year.
Mr Holt claimed he was forced to sack Mr Gillett because he was “effectively being locked out of his own business”.
Lord Justice Robert Walker described Mr Gillett as “energetic, skilful and innovative”.
The court refused permission to take the case to the House of Lords.
“The Times” 9th March 2001