Expert lawyers in their field!
Dorset has some of the best regional law firms, providing commercial and private client legal advice to the county’s people and businesses. They also act for many living outside the county and some outside the country.
As a specialist rural and agricultural solicitor, it is no surprise I practice in rural Dorset, rather than in a city. Only about 6.3% of the land in Dorset is classified as urban and approximately half the county is designated as areas of outstanding natural beauty and sites of special scientific interest.
Whilst I write this, we are in Stress Awareness Month (April) and therefore it would be remiss not to state that Law is a stressful profession, but it is also very rewarding. Working outside the city will not necessarily reduce the stress, as the work is just as challenging, with the same compliance and client expectation. However, there is growing evidence to suggest being surrounded by nature has positive effects on a person’s mental health. Studies have shown that green spaces (and no, the walkie talkie’s sky garden in London or other such spaces do not count) can lower levels of stress and reduce rates of depression and anxiety, reduce cortisol levels and improve general well-being. Whilst I can’t say that lawyers working in Dorset are less stressed than those in the city, Dorset certainly has that allure of tranquillity to achieve true mental stillness.
It is understandable that when most enter their journey into the legal profession, they do not think themselves as acting for farmers, rural landowners, rural businesses, landed estates and agricultural tenants (the agricultural sector). That may be down to popular culture and media. Movies and TV shows dictate you are only a lawyer if you wear a three piece from Savill Row and resolve a multimillion-pound dispute in a matter hours or days.
To dispel such imagery and myth, Dorset based law firms work for big brands and companies. Rural business captures a huge variety of trades and companies, including but certainly not limited to, accountancy, consultancy, machinery and plant, agroforestry, aviation, building works, charities, vehicles, machinery and equipment, software, ecology, estate agents, food and drink, forestry and woodland, camping and glamping, health, holiday cottages, land agents and promoters, land development, parks, public attractions, planning, racecourses, surveying, outdoor pursuits, equine, extreme sports and festivals.
Farms and landed estates are unsurprisingly run as commercial businesses, having to deal with land management, health and safety, a property portfolio, shops, wedding venues, ecommerce, husbandry, construction, renewables, planning, contractual agreements, land transactions, international sales and purchases, succession planning etc.
As an agricultural lawyer you build a strong relationship with others within the agricultural sector, as it is a close community and one which is constantly developing. The agricultural sector works at the forefront of innovation, diversification and conservation and environmental sustainability.
Now, let me invite you to consider the following examples of what a Dorset based law firm has to offer.
The South West seems to be a hot spot for agricultural proprietary estoppel claims. The latest of these is the well published Guest v Guest case. It was held that the purpose of the doctrine of proprietary estoppel is the prevention or undoing of unconscionable conduct. I appreciate to many the terms used are not easily understood. Such claims normally start where a farming parent promises to a child that if they work on the farm, for very little, one day they will inherit it. The child relies on the promise to his or her detriment, in the belief that the keys to the kingdom will one day be theirs. When this does not happen, the promise has a claim against the promisor or their estate for an equitable remedy.
Fraudulent calumny is a ground (alongside a lack of due execution, lack of testamentary capacity, lack of knowledge & approval and undue influence) for impugning the validity of a will once the testator has died. If you think “fraudulent calumny” sounds like something from a Shakespeare play, you would not be far wrong. The concept of pouring poison in the ear was a common theme for the playwright. Sadly, however it is still very much relevant today in the context of wills and we have a current matter where this applies. Fraudulent calumny occurs when a person poisons a will-maker’s mind against someone who would otherwise be their natural beneficiary, and as a result the will-maker disinherits the person they have been poisoned against, or leaves them less than they would be expected to receive. If fraudulent calumny can be proved, the will is invalid and will be set aside, reverting to the will-maker’s previous will or, if they did not have one, the intestacy rules.
Many farms and landed estates have different parcels of land and parts of the business in trusts, limited companies, partnerships, joint venture agreements etc. with various beneficial owners. One such business needed to pay off a beneficiary and along with other professionals we orchestrated a settlement agreement, a company demerger, creation of new companies, directors’ and shareholders’ agreements, movement of assets from pension funds, applied overage provisions to parcels of land, employment settlement agreement, tax advice, Agricultural Holdings Act advice, retirement of trustees and trust advice.
Succession planning, especially where certain children don’t wish to work on or inherit the farm is paramount and when done correctly reduces the risk of future litigation and family disputes. A client had the dilemma of wanting to allow the farm to continue and therefore the need to give the bulk of their estate to their “farming” children, but also making provision for their child who is not part of the farming operation. We designed a structure in which upon the death of the client, the estate is placed into a discretionary trust with an accompanying note of wishes in which they have instructed the trustees to give a particular property and a lump sum of money to their non-farming child, and for the remainder of their assets (being the farm) to pass to their farming children. However, we also included a provision within the note of wishes that the farm should remain in trust for an agreed number of years from the death of the client, so that if the farm is sold within this period, the non-farming child will receive a percentage of the sale proceeds.
With the value of land and the need for further housing, well positioned land provides an opportunity for development and a significant increase in value. Disputes over ownership, ransom strips, restrictive covenants, boundary disputes and other rights effecting the land are common. In the English and Welsh legal system, litigation is adversarial which does cause for an additional dynamic where it is family members at blows rather than merely a corporate company with investors.
The agricultural sector’s legal advice is heavily focused around land law. Like them or loath them, solar farms and wind farms are becoming a more common site on our green landscape. Setting aside the emotive arguments about their placement and effectiveness, complex land law and contract law underpin all such commercial agreements. We are dealing with a site that may become the largest in England and Wales.
The agricultural sector is diverse and as such most areas of our legal practice is involved within this sector, and we are grateful and proud to work in such an important and giving sector.
And to end, one must remember, when the government mandated that national lockdown in 2020; most people’s lives paused. During this breather, it enabled us to remember our priorities. True and tangible priorities such as one’s health, time, family and friends. And they are, unarguably, the key ingredients to a well-balanced, sustainable and long-lasting career. To have a legal career in Dorset is one step closer to just this and something that I can most certainly attest to.
Paul Dunlop, Managing Partner of Blanchards Bailey LLP