An 85-year-old goat farmer and the ex-business partner she loathes have ended up living on opposite sides of a dividing wall in a rural barn conversion, the High Court has heard.
Muriel Brown, a well-known authority on goat husbandry and cheese-making, was in 2001 the sole owner of the barn, known as Capri Lodge at Northgate Farm, Morpeth, as well as 11 surrounding acres of paddock and woodland.
But by 2005 she had transferred half of the barn and surrounding land to builder and ex-Swan Hunter shipyard worker, William Stephenson. Since 2008, they have been locked in argument, Mrs Brown inhabiting the south part of the barn and Mr Stephenson the north.
At London’s High Court, the widow, who showed her goats at agricultural shows, lectured on the art of cheese making and for more than 20 years sold her wares at health food shops and delicatessens, accused Mr Stephenson of bullying her into submission.
Pointing to her dyslexia, health problems and financial pressure she was under at the time, she claimed she had signed over land and property to Mr Stephenson in 2003 and 2005 under his “undue influence” and asked Judge John Behrens to come to her aid.
Accusing Mr Stephenson of “aggressive and bullying behaviour” - including throwing things around and threatening to shoot a goat - she claimed he had put her under “extreme pressure” to retire from their business partnership in 2005.
Judge Behrens said both Mrs Brown and Mr Stephenson were honest witnesses. But, clearing him of bullying the pensioner, he said her allegations against him were uncorroborated and not consistent.
Mrs Brown had willingly entered into a business partnership with Mr Stephenson who had helped her in her work and ploughed tens of thousands of pounds from his savings into converting the barn as well as paying £6,000 to settle a boundary dispute with neighbours.
Rejecting the widow’s plea that Mr Stephenson had subjected her to undue influence, the judge said that, although relations between them were “more strained” by 2005, he had not placed “undue pressure” on her to transfer the woodland and paddock into his name.
Mrs Brown said last night: “I will be appealing against the decision if I can find the money.
“I have already spent around £17,000 on legal fees and I have spent all of my savings. He was a nice neighbour but it has turned sour. I wish I’d never met him.”
The judge said Mrs Brown had been in full control of her own financial affairs and had received independent legal advice before making the transfers. Mr Stephenson was not available for comment yesterday.