Son wins legal battle over farm estate

A farming couple who spent nearly 50 years building up a thriving business face an uncertain future after losing out in a bitter legal war with their son over the carve-up of their £2m Somerset estate.

Ronald and Jean Ham started their farming business in 1966 on a modest 5ha plot before buying 90ha at Lower West Barn Farm, Frome, in 1986.

By 1997 the farm had grown to 178ha and, soon afterwards, the couple decided to bring their son John into their partnership, hoping he would take up the mantle and continue the farming tradition.

John, now 34, stepped into the business at the age of 19 and had worked hard alongside his parents, London’s Appeal Court heard.

But by 2009 the three-way working arrangement had begun to unravel and John decided to retire from the partnership, which signalled the start of an acrimonious dispute.

Ronald Ham, 73, and his wife had argued that John’s share in the partnership should be assessed on the “book value of the estate”.

But John claimed he was entitled to the full market value of his share in the family business.

On Wednesday (30 October), three judges ruled John was legally in the right and that his parents must be held to the bargain they struck with him more than 15 years ago.

Ruling in favour of John’s interpretation of the partnership agreement, Lord Justice Lewison said: “I reach this conclusion with some reluctance because, on the particular facts, it may well be thought that John will receive a substantial windfall.”

Lord Justice Briggs also expressed “real sympathy” for Mr and Mrs Ham, but concluded that John was entitled to have his share of the business assessed on the full, open-market value of the whole of the partnership property.

The judge expressed sadness that a lack of clarity in the agreement’s drafting had caused so much “anxiety and expense” to the family.

The judges refused to grant Mr and Mrs Ham leave to appeal their decision.

The couple’s barrister, Nathaniel Duckworth, had earlier told the court a ruling in John’s favour would represent “game over” for his parents since they would have to find a six-figure sum to buy him out, or else sell off a large part of the farm.

But John’s barrister, Ian Partridge, said his client had worked “long hours with youth and vigour for over 11 years”.

Speaking after the hearing, John Ham, said: “I worked on the farm from young but there came a time when my parents and I could not agree on important matters relating to the future of the farm, and they would not relinquish control, so that I had no choice in the end but to make the difficult decision to go my own way.

“There was initially no dispute and my exit from the business was being sorted amicably by our accountant and the farm agent, until my parents sought advice from a new solicitor who advised them not to pay me my fair share of the farm, and as a result we have had this very expensive court case.”

Ron Ham had earlier said outside court: “If you’re in farming, don’t go into partnership with your son.”

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