You are here

Will in favour of charity invalid, appeal judges confirm

1 December 2010

The RSPCA has lost its appeal against a decision invalidating a will in favour of the animal charity because the testator had been coerced into it.

The wills made by Christine Gill’s parents provided that the £2.3m family farm at the centre of the dispute would pass to the surviving spouse and, on the death of the second spouse, to the RSPCA.

When Joyce Gill died in 2006 the farm was to pass to the charity but Christine Gill claimed her mother’s will was not valid because she had been forced into it by her husband contrary to her wishes.

In October 2009 the High Court upheld her claim on the grounds of undue influence and proprietary estoppel.

The Court of Appeal ruling yesterday refused the RSPCA’s appeal but the three-judge panel is yet to give reasons for its decision.

The Court of Appeal heard arguments on behalf of the RSPCA challenging the lower court’s finding in relation to undue influence and estoppel. Christine Gill, represented by Mishcon de Reya’s Mark Keenan, cross-appealed, arguing that should the appeal judges find in favour of the charity the will should be declared invalid for “want of knowledge and approval”.

Keenan, who acts for a number of charities in legacy disputes, does not agree the case will lead to a rise in claims against charities. Charities, he said, “shouldn’t be alarmed by the decision”.

“Contrary to the suggestion that there was a fundamental legal principle at stake here, the case was fact specific,” he said. “The judge found that Mrs Gill suffered from a mental disorder, had an avowed dislike of the RSPCA and had a loving relationship with her daughter. These findings were not challenged on appeal.”

Keenan added that, contrary to its assertions, the RSPCA was under no obligation to pursue the case through the courts and should have accepted Christine Gill’s numerous offers to go through mediation instead.

Keenan also referred to the Charity Commission guidance and the judge’s comment made during the costs hearing that “charities are like any other commercial litigants”, before adding that charities are not obliged and should not feel compelled to defend or to take to trial cases such as this.

The case was eventually funded through a conditional fee agreement after Christine Gill’s pre-trial offers at a settlement were rejected.

It is understood that Christine Gill’s costs are in excess of £1m, including the after-the-event premium, and the Court of Appeal is yet to rule on this point. The three appeal judges included Lord Neuberger and Lord Justice Lloyd. The third was Lord Justice Jackson, whose report on costs in civil litigation advocates an end to the recoverability of ATE premiums.

For now the ruling confirms the order from the court below revoking the grant of probate and declaring the will invalid.

Categorised in:

Procedures ADR Charities Vulnerable Clients