A £2.5m arable unit is to be wound up and sold after the farmer died and his three daughters became embroiled in a bitter legal battle over the farm’s future.
Arable grower Bryan Harding of Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, died in 2001. Mr Harding had spent his lifetime building up the business, Brand & Harding Limited, and his wish was that the 100ha (242 acre) farm should be kept in the family.
His widow, Janet Harding, is now stricken by dementia and Parkinson’s disease and the farm is managed day-to-day by Robert Stacey, who worked alongside Mr Harding.
But the company will now have to be wound up and its assets sold after judge, Mrs Justice Rose, ruled the rift between Mr Harding’s daughters, Sally Harding, Rosemary Walton and Elizabeth Edwards, appeared beyond repair.
Speaking of the “growing schism” between Sally and Rosemary on one side, and their older sister Elizabeth on the other, the judge said the sisters had proved “unable to disentangle their personal animosities” and focus on the company’s best interests.
Describing the company as “deadlocked”, she said that even usually straightforward business decisions had become “mired in hostility”.
The judge ruled there was “no alternative” to winding up the company.
“There is no prospect of matters improving and, indeed, it is likely that future disputes over Janet Harding’s shares will make matters worse.”
All three sisters had shares in the company and, although Elizabeth – who owns 16.75% – was currently more involved than her siblings, the judge said they were “quasi-partners” in the farming business.
She said it was Sally and Rosemary’s case that their dealings with their sister had “over recent years been marked by accusations and counter-accusations of misconduct, descending into bitter acrimony”.
“They cannot seem to pull themselves out of the mess into which the company’s affairs have fallen or agree any matters relating to the future governance of the company,” the judge added.
Sally and Rosemary objected to the extent of the involvement of Elizabeth’s husband, Esmond Edwards, in the management of the company and had attempted to replace him as the company’s accountant.
For her part, Elizabeth accused her sisters of “taking little interest” in the business, despite owning 32.75% of its shares.
She argued the business is “profitable and successful” and told the court “she is able and willing to continue to run it” for the mutual benefit of all the shareholders “if her sisters would leave her alone to do so”.
Elizabeth and her husband had tried to remove Sally and Rosemary as directors of the company, but the judge said: “Mr and Mrs Edwards cannot simply expunge her sisters from the company, much though they would wish to do so.”
She added: “If Sally and Rosemary were content to leave all the management in Mrs Edwards’ hands, then the company might be able to proceed.
“But they have never been content to do that and now they do not trust Mr or Mrs Edwards to act in the best interests of the company.
“Sally and Rosemary are not prepared to take a back seat and Mrs Edwards’ desire to be left to get on with managing the farm is not a desire that is capable of being satisfied.”
The judge concluded: “I am therefore firmly of the opinion it is just and equitable the company should be wound up.”