A senior judge urged two brothers from an old farming family locked in a bitter dispute over their inheritance to “bury the hatchet” in honour of their father.
Appeal Court judge Lord Justice Ward said he had no doubt “a vast amount of money” had been spent in the “uncompromising” legal battle between Andrew Lifely and youngest brother Nicholas, from Herefordshire.
There had been anger and hostility, suspicions, accusations and wounded feelings.
“Even the word ‘hatred’ has been used,” said the judge, sitting in the Court of Appeal with Lord Justice Dyson and Lord Justice Lloyd.
He observed: “No dispute can be bloodier than when the blood, thicker than water, is spilled copiously in uncompromising and uncompromised litigation between brothers in a fight over their inheritance and their farming business.”
The three appeal judges unanimously declared that fresh “bombshell” evidence in a diary meant the whole dispute that had gone on for over a decade, and looked to have been largely resolved in a 2006 ruling, must be reopened in the Chancery Division of the High Court.
But Lord Justice Ward appealed to the brothers to compromise now and put an end to the dispute, which includes a key battle over milk quotas.
He said: “They may well have made some attempt to compromise, but, if they are to honour their father, as they should, and to have respect for the effort he made to build up this business for them and (third brother) Simon, then surely the time has come to bury the hatchet, try again and settle their differences.
“They may not easily be able to sit together around the kitchen table but they can sit at the table of a mediator skilled in bringing litigation like this to a quick resolution. I do commend it.”
The judge described how successful farmer and businessman David Lifely had hoped his three sons would follow him into farming.
By 1984 he had acquired three farms, one for each son – Lane Head Farm in Eaton Bishop for Andrew, the adjoining Shepherd’s Meadow Farm for Nicholas and Olive Mead Farm in Wiltshire for his middle son, Simon.
Two of the farms had milk quotas totalling over 1.4 million litres. Andrew’s land was not suitable for dairy farming but, with his father’s help, was awarded a special hardship quota of 362,055 litres. Sadly, said the judge, the father contracted cancer at a comparatively young age and died in June 1990.
“Then the trouble began.”
It was Andrew’s case he had agreed with his father the entire special hardship quota should be his, on his father’s death.
Andrew said it had also been agreed between his brothers and his father the remaining quota “should be shared equally”.
His version of events was supported by the fact he persuaded his brothers to share any income from leasing the quota in proportions reflecting his argument, said the judge. Nicholas had changed his position “more than once” but had gone to court arguing “all of the quota” should be split equally.
In September 2006, Judge Weeks QC, a Chancery Division judge sitting in Bristol, had ruled on disputed partnership issues.
He had determined the milk quota issue in Nicholas’s favour, saying they should be equally shared between all three.
Now Andrew wanted permission to reopen the case and had produced a “bombshell” in the form of fresh evidence to challenge Nicholas’s credibility, said Lord Justice Ward.
Andrew said, following the Chancery judgment, he found a diary belonging to Nicholas when clearing out the outhouse at Lane Head Farm in 2007.
Two of Nicholas’s diaries for 1990 and 1992 had been pushed down the side of one box stored under a number of other boxes.
Andrew said an entry on May 27. 1990. – three weeks and one day before his father’s death – contained information on milk quotas which left him “in complete shock”, said the appeal judge.
At first he had not appreciated the full significance, but later realised it confirmed his belief “the special hardship milk quota were his alone”.
The judge said Nicholas greeted the news “with incredulity” and there was “a sharp conflict of fact” as to how and when Andrew came into possession of the diaries.
Nicholas was suspicious Andrew had removed the documents from Shepherd’s Meadow.
But he did not challenge that the entry was made by him, and the evidence was “obviously credible”.
Although other explanations were being advanced for the entry, “the words on their face are inconsistent with Nicholas’s case and supportive of Andrew’s, and in my judgment they probably would have an important influence on the result of the case,” said the judge.