Daphne Harris, RSPCA

The chair of the animal charity tells Kaye Wiggins about the effects of its defeat in court

Daphne Harris
Daphne Harris

The RSPCA was shocked last month when it lost its appeal over a legacy worth more than £2m, according to the charity's chair, Daphne Harris.

Harris, who has chaired the animal welfare charity since 2008 and will step down later this year, says the board thought long and hard before deciding to appeal against a High Court ruling in the Christine Gill case.

Gill had won a long court battle after arguing that she was entitled to a 287-acre farm in North Yorkshire because her mother had been coerced into leaving it to the charity.

The charity's appeal against the ruling happened in December, but was unsuccessful. "The decision has been a big shock," says Harris. "We wouldn't have tried to appeal unless we thought we had a good case. We are obviously upset and disappointed."

She says the board's discussions about the case were difficult. "We weighed up the cost implications of launching an appeal against the implications of doing nothing," she says.

"We decided that if someone does not feel sure that their money will go where they want it to when they die, that's very worrying for them and also for the charity."

She says several other charities that receive large legacy donations have written to the RSPCA to say they share its concerns.

As a result of the case, Harris says, the RSPCA will try to reduce its reliance on legacy fundraising, which accounts for 65 per cent of its total income. "This case has pulled us up short," she says. "In the future, we're going to invest a lot more in fundraising from the living."

The RSPCA is at a difficult stage at the moment, Harris says, because it is halfway through a three-year plan to save £54m.

"We agreed in 2008 that we had to reduce our deficit, but now we're 18 months in and we're struggling," she says. "We've decided to protect front-line jobs, but there is a two-year pay freeze for all staff."

Harris says further savings raise bigger questions about what role the charity should play. "There's a debate about whether we should cut back on some areas of our work," she says. "None of us can agree. The RSPCA has been all things to all people and all animals for so long, and we don't know what to let go of."

Harris has been involved with the RSPCA for 40 years, as a volunteer, a dog homer, a fundraiser and a charity shop manager.

She still runs the charity's Tonbridge and Maidstone branch, has been on the board for 20 years and has been re-elected every three years in that time. "It's a political arena," she says. "If you're doing what people want, that's fine. I've got a lot of experience and understand how it works."

Despite this, Harris was apprehensive when she became chair. "The board members are passionate about their work but, as you'd expect, they often have differing views," she says.

"The prospect of having to keep meetings under control was frightening at first. But now I try to find out before meetings if there are any problems."

Harris says the charity's governance set-up means she must stand down as chair in June this year after three years in the role.

The system was set up to make sure the chair didn't stay in place for too long, she says, but she has doubts about whether it was a good idea. "In your first year, you learn what you're supposed to do," she says. "In your second year, you put it into operation, and in your third year you're just starting to enjoy it. Then it's gone."

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