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Mishcons hits back at RSPCA claims in battle over will

14 October 2009

Mishcon de Reya, solicitors for Dr Christine Gill, have hit back at claims made by the RSPCA in the battle over her mother’s will.

The charity announced last week that it would appeal against a High Court ruling which stated that Dr Gill should inherit her mother’s farm in Yorkshire, even though the will left it to the RSPCA.

Mark Keenan, partner at Mishcons, said it was inaccurate for the charity to claim it was “legally obliged” to fight the case.

“The RSPCA, like any other litigant, is able to decide whether or not to defend a claim on the basis of the strength of the claim it faces,” he said. “There is no principle of law which forces a charity to defend a claim which another reasonable litigant would not defend.

“Charities like the RSPCA can also decide that, regardless of the strength of any challenge to a will under which it benefits, it will agree to an award being made out of the estate to recognise a strong moral obligation.”

Keenan said he found it “astonishing” that the charity rejected an offer by Dr Gill, made in January 2008, for the case to go to mediation.

“The implication that the RSPCA was pressing for a settlement is clearly not the case. It was not prepared to meet the claimant.”

Keenan said that Dr Gill had also made four specific offers to settle the case, which involved giving the charity both land and money. The charity has said it made two offers to settle. The precise details of the offers are disputed.

The costs of the case, which involved three High Court hearings over a six-month period and in which the RSPCA hired a QC, are understood to be large.

The after the event insurance premium paid by Dr Gill before the final stages of the litigation will also feature in the bill.

James Allen QC, sitting as a deputy judge at the High Court in Leeds, ruled that Joyce Gill’s will, leaving the £2.3m property to the RSPCA, was invalid because she had been coerced by her husband to make a will contrary to her wishes and because of promises she had made to her daughter.

A spokeswoman for the RSPCA said the charity was surprised and disappointed by the ruling and concerned about the implications for charities and other groups.

“Throughout this, the RSPCA has been in an extremely difficult position,” she said. “The will left by Dr Gill’s parents was very clear – in one sentence they left their entire estate to the RSPCA, and in the next they said their daughter should receive nothing.”

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