Jeffrey Clarke - Drainage and Farmer Panel Member of the Agricultural Land Tribunals

The Agricultural Land Tribunals (ALTs) play an important role in settling disputes and other issues between agricultural tenants and landlords arising from tenancy agreements.

They also consider applications in respect of drainage disputes between neighbours. 

I do not have any qualifications in drainage or agriculture, but I have detailed knowledge and considerable experience of both from farming wheat, sugar beet and potatoes for more than 50 years in the Fens. This enables me to bring to the Tribunal Panel some common sense about farming situations and to be considerate to both parties' positions.

Disputes mainly arise when fields cannot be farmed because they are flooded. Many farmers have an interest in this. My own farm is below sea level and I have had to resolve an issue with a field that was too wet and required some renovation of the ditches on my land and that of a neighbour. There was a bit of confusion over who owned a particular ditch and this is the sort of matter which may come before the tribunal if it cannot be resolved. One tribunal hearing I was part of in Wales involved a household with a very wet paddock that was blaming a farmer for flooding their land. Highways and railways have ditches only for boundaries and are not legally bound to keep them compliant for drainage, so this can also lead to disputes.

The Tribunal sits in panels of three people, with a legally qualified Chairman and two Lay Members. It deals with disputes where there are no Internal Drainage Boards - authorities established in areas of special drainage with powers to undertake work to secure clean water drainage and water level management.

All the paperwork is sent to the panel members in advance of a tribunal hearing. Then, on the first day, you go for a site visit. After this, the parties will start to present their evidence - and there is a flexible approach to this to allow as much useful information to be gathered as possible, which may mean an extra witness is allowed in at the last minute. Once all the evidence has been heard, the tribunal panel jointly makes the decision and within a few days it is sent to all parties together with reasons.

I am now a semi-retired farmer with a smallholding. I also started off farming on a smallholding and went on to farm hundreds of acres. I applied to be a Drainage Panel Member because I had been a Magistrate since 1999 and one of my colleagues also worked for the Employment Tribunals. This made me realise I could be using my expertise in other areas. I am genuinely interested in drainage and liked the idea of another challenge. You also get to meet lots of interesting people outside of the farming world.

I have heard half a dozen cases now, across Wales, Essex and Kent. How do I fit this in with in with my other work? I always think of the phrase 'if you want a job doing, ask a busy person' is very appropriate for farmers. In the past I have got up at 5am to sort out my potatoes and been in court by 9am!