Analysis: How far should charities go to pursue disputed legacies?

The High Court ruled this month in favour of Christine Gill (pictured) on a £2m legacy left by her mother to the RSPCA. The case highlighted how charities risk being drawn into bitter legal battles, writes Paul Jump

Christine Gill
Christine Gill

The High Court ruling this month on a £2m legacy left to the RSPCA has been a reminder of the reputational minefield charities can find themselves in when a legacy dispute enters the public domain.

The will was successfully challenged by university lecturer Christine Gill, who argued that her mother had been coerced by her late husband into signing it.

A spokesman for the RSPCA, which intends to appeal against the decision, argued that its trustees' fiduciary duties obliged it to pursue the case - a statement challenged by Gill's solicitor, Mark Keenan. The RSPCA spokesman said the charity had made Gill a substantial offer to settle out of court.

But the charity's stance drew criticism, and a spat with Gill's lawyers about the value of an earlier offer made by Gill only added to the negative publicity.

Stephen George, chairman of charity legacy consortium Remember a Charity, said the overwhelming majority of legacy disputes were settled out of court. He added that charities should encourage potential legators to inform their families of their intentions.

It might be time for the sector to produce a 'legacy charter' that set out what people should expect, he said.

Jonathan Burchfield, head of the legacy team at law firm Stone King Sewell, urged charities not to be put off too easily by the fear of bad publicity. "There are always a few difficult cases that need to be settled by the courts so their merits can be properly reviewed," he said.

Trustees of charities that are not used to dealing with legacies can be bullied by family members into settling, according to John Low, chief executive of the Charities Aid Foundation.

But he said charities should treat disgruntled family members respectfully and remember that correspondence with them might be made public in court. "Some charities are compassionate; others can sometimes be a bit rough," he said.

Alison Meek, a partner at law firm Harcus Sinclair who specialises in disputed legacies, said the RSPCA's conduct could have an adverse effect on future donations. "Showing itself to be a hard-headed commercial litigator that will pursue a party into the ground does not sit comfortably with most people's views of how charities should behave," she said.

Meek said she had spoken to a dozen or more legacy lawyers and all had experienced "aggressive and grasping" behaviour by charities. Several had decided not to leave charity legacies as a result, she said. "If I were a legacy officer in a charity, I would regard that as a serious issue."

 

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