Analysis: Legal battle over a will was a costly gamble for the RSPCA

A number of charities and umbrella bodies have expressed concerns about the implications of the case for the sector

RSPCA
RSPCA

Last week, the RSPCA lost an appeal against a High Court ruling overturning a will that bequeathed to the charity a 287-acre North Yorkshire farm worth more than £2m.

Judges said they would give their reasons at a later date for dismissing the case, which was originally brought by Christine Gill, the daughter of the deceased. She argued that her father had coerced her mother into leaving everything in her will to the RSPCA before he died in 1999.

A number of charities and umbrella bodies have expressed concerns about the implications of the case for the sector. Organisations including the Charities Aid Foundation, the NCVO and the RSPB issued a joint statement saying it was "unacceptable for trustees to be caught between the legal duty to secure assets to which the charity is entitled and the threat of huge legal costs being imposed for attempting to do so".

Stephen O'Reilly, a solicitor in the charity team at the law firm Russell-Cooke, said trustees have a legal obligation to maximise the charity's assets, but this must be balanced against the likelihood of success.

"Trustees should also consider, for example, how much money is at stake, what sort of evidence there is and the negative publicity there could be for the charity," he said. "You need to be able to justify your decision based on a number of factors."

A spokeswoman for the RSPCA said that, before deciding to appeal the Gill case, trustees were advised by lawyers that the original judgement was flawed. She said the charity had paid £300,000 in legal costs and the rest of the costs, including the possibility of having to pay Gill's legal bill of almost £1m, would not be confirmed until the reasons for the judgement were made known.

John Low, chief executive of CAF, said he hoped the reasons for the decision would give charities more guidance on whether to pursue similar cases in the future. "Trustees need clarity from the legal system on this," he said.

A spokeswoman for the Charity Commission said it was in the process of drafting guidance for trustees who were considering litigation involving their charities.

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