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RSPCA not "legally obliged" to fight battle over Yorkshire widow's will

20 October 2009

A war of words has erupted after a Yorkshire woman won a battle to inherit her mother’s farm, even though it was bequeathed to the RSPCA in the will.

Mishcon de Reya, solicitors for Dr Christine Gill, have hit back at claims by the charity, which is appealing against the ruling, that it was “legally obliged” to fight the case.

Mark Keenan, partner at Mishcons, said the claim was inaccurate.

“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.

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.

He 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.

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.

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 and because of promises she had made to her daughter.

Delivering judgment in Gill v RSPCA and others (awaiting publication), Judge Allen ruled that Mrs Gill’s will was the result of the “undue influence” of her husband and should be set aside.

“The evidence in this case points to and establishes, on a balance of probabilities, that Mrs Gill’s wish was for the claimant to inherit the farm on her death,” Judge Allen said.

“Mr Gill, for reasons that remain a mystery, despite the assurances he gave to the claimant, the overt and implied representations to third parties by statement and conduct that such was his intention, determined that nothing would be inherited by the claimant and all would pass to the third defendant.

“The court is satisfied that, having made his decision, Mr Gill exerted pressure upon Mrs Gill to make the will which she did, which was contrary to her wishes.”

Judge Allen said Mr Gill used his “domineering and bombastic personality” against Mrs Gill, exploiting her anxiety, fear of his explosive character and the possibility of losing his support.

He ruled that Dr Gill’s claim also succeeded on the separate ground of proprietary estoppel, applying the test set out in the leading judgment of the House of Lords in Thorner v Majors and others [2009] UKHL 8 (see Solicitors Journal, 31 March 2009).

Judge Allen said that evidence of Dr Gill’s reliance on the assurances given by her parents that she would inherit the farm included the time and labour she expended at the farm, her conscious decision to pursue an academic rather than a business career, purchasing and rebuilding the farm next door and providing daily care for both her parents.

However, relying on his earlier ruling on undue influence, Judge Allen made an order setting aside the mother’s will.

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