A woman has lost an appeal over her claim she did not get her full quarter share of her father’s IR£243,000 (€308,000) estate after he died 36 years ago when she was 17.
Catriona Cunniffe also claimed her brother Michael and sister Martina had reneged on an agreement that she would be entitled to reside for as long as she wanted in their former family home at Lisdeligney, Killimor, Ballinasloe, Co Galway, and that, as a result, she suffered a personal injury. Their father, farmer Patrick Joseph Cunniffe, died intestate in September 1987. He was predeceased by his wife and the couple had four children.
The net value of the estate was £243,870, the bulk of it comprising the residential farm, valued at £91,000 and £126,000 in deposits and financial investments.
Catriona was the youngest and Martina, at 21 was the eldest and became the administrator of the estate. Michael took over the running of the farm and was assisted by his brother Padraic until Padraic moved to London.
Catriona completed her Leaving Cert after her father’s death and went to college where she got a Bachelor’s degree with her fees paid by Michael who also provided an allowance during term-time.
In 2016, Catriona brought High Court proceedings against Martina and Michael claiming, among other things, breach of duty, breach of the Succession Act and negligent misstatement and/or misrepresentation about the estate when she was a minor.
While, at the time following the death, Catriona said it was agreed within the family that it would have been their father’s wish that Michael would get the farm, she was always assured by Michael and Martina that she would be entitled to full access to the family home. Catriona said she looked forward, through her teens, 20s and 30s, to getting back to the family home and looked upon it as her primary residence until 2004.
However, over a long period of time she said she felt less and less welcome and around 2003 Michael disconnected the house’s water supply and also removed the solid fuel range cooker, making the house uninhabitable. Catriona, who was a vegetarian, also said Michael attacked her core values by hanging carcasses of butchered deer and sheep in the old back kitchen. She moved to Craughwell, Galway, in 2004.
In their defences, Michael and Martina both denied her claims and argued she has brought the case outside the legal time limit imposed by the Statute of Limitations. Martina also denied information on the administration was withheld and said Catriona had never expressed disquiet or dissatisfaction about the administration of the estate prior to the institution of her legal action. Just before Martina got married in 1995 (she now uses her married name Martina Whyte), a “deed of family settlement” was drawn up to try to finalise the estate and whereby the farm was formally transferred to Michael.
Martina’s solicitor told the High Court that under this deed, when their father’s investments had reached maturity, Catriona was paid a total of £39,076 between August 1988 and “the early 2000s”.
Catriona claimed she had no recollection of having signed the document or of the circumstances surrounding it. She also suggested that because the document was incomplete and undated and as her signature had not been witnessed, this meant it was not a legal document.
The High Court found Catriona’s claims in relation to misrepresentation and personal injury were statute-barred, as she was aware of difficulties when issues first arose with Michael about the family home in 2003/4 and she was obliged to bring her case within six years of that time. The High Court also separately rejected her claim of fraud in relation to the signing of the deed of family settlement which she said she never saw until 2019.
Catriona appealed, arguing the High Court erred in law. Michael and Martina opposed the appeal.
On Wednesday, Mr Justice Senan Allen, on behalf of the three-judge Court of Appeal, said she had not shown any error on the part of the High Court. He said the legislative policy of the Statute of Limitations is “to prevent the litigation of stale claims” and Catriona’s claims “long predated” the claim she brought in 2016. She had not articulated, much less proved, her claim that running of time in relation to the Statute had been postponed because of fraud, he said.