Thursday 5 December 2019

Three brothers fail in their bid to stop another brother selling his share of family land

The Four Courts, Dublin
The Four Courts, Dublin

Three brothers who strongly opposed moves by another brother to sell his interest in the 448 acre family farm have lost their appeal against court orders permitting its sale for €3.45m.

The private sale was negotiated after just one bid, of €1 for each lot being offered for sale, was made at a public auction in September 2015 for the lands after those attending were told by that bidder this was a family farm subject to a family dispute and anyone buying it would have "bad luck",  a court heard.

The legal dispute has been ongoing since 2007 between David Rickard and his brothers Mark, Gerard and Stephen over the Co Meath farm was a "difficult and tragic saga", the Court of Appeal said.

While the forced sale of land against its owners' wishes was bound to cause great upset, especially when it involved one family member against his siblings, it was not acceptable David Rickard's efforts to sell his interest should be obstructed over years, Ms Justice Mary Irvine said.

The judge hoped the dispute would be closed by the judgment.

The conduct of the defendant brothers has at times far exceeded their legal entitlements and they have wilfully obstructed the sale of these lands, she said. That was to the detriment of their brother and themselves as significant costs had been incurred.

With their mother, the four brothers jointly owned the 448 acres under a partnership agreement made in 1994 but, after their mother died in 2006, David decided to cease farming and initiated proceedings in 2007 to realise his share of the assets.

In 2011, having got a court order declaring the partnership ended with the death of his mother in December 2006, David sought an order for sale of the lands which was opposed by his brothers.

In June 2013, the High Court directed the lands be sold at public auction and ordered the defendant brothers vacate the lands to facilitate that.

Numerous court applications followed when they failed to do so and all three were later found guilty of contempt of court. A stay was placed on their committal to prison after they undertook not to re-enter the lands.

The lands were due to be sold at public auction on September 29, 2015, but at 2am that day, the defendants made an offer to buy them which David Rickard rejected because he considered it did not address issues fundamental to the dispute.

The auction was well attended but ended after the only bid received for each lot of land, which had a reserve of €5,000 per acre, was a bid of €1.

The court-appointed auctioneer was approached afterwards by five interested parties, a bidding process was conducted among those and the total price ultimately achieved, subject to court approval, was €3.45m.

Further proceedings followed where the High Court approved sale of the lands by private treaty for €3.45m.

Dismissing the defendants appeal against the High Court's orders, the Court of Appeal found no impermissible conduct was engaged in by the court-appointed auctioneer and he had implicit authority to negotiate as he had.

It also rejected the defendants claims the lands were sold at an undervalue.

While it was true the auctioneer had said, had the lands been offered for sale "without any interference" the property would likely have realised between €10-10,500 per acre and the offers ultimately received reflected an average value of €7,701 per acre,  these lands were not being sold on the open market without any interference, Ms Justice Irvine said.

The background to the sales was "fraught with interference", the sale was conducted "under a general air of intimidation" and it was well known locally the proposed sales were bitterly opposed, she said.  Of further relevance was the reserve price per acre was €5,000.

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