The group of animal charities appealing against a ruling that redirected part of a legacy donation to the benefactor’s daughter have been granted permission to take their case to the Supreme Court.
Melita Jackson left her entire £486,000 estate to the Blue Cross, the RSPB and the RSPCA, but in 2007, after her death, her estranged daughter Heather Ilott challenged the will, saying she had been unreasonably excluded.
She was initially awarded £50,000 under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 on the basis that her mother had not left reasonable provision for her maintenance. She appealed and, in July 2015, her share of the estate was more than trebled to £163,000.
Jackson had left a letter with her will expressly confirming her desire to exclude her daughter and instructing her lawyers to continue to challenge any claim Ilott made on the money.
The charities have now been granted permission to appeal this second award before the Supreme Court, questioning the appeal court’s approach to the case and how the judge calculated the amount Ilott should receive.
James Aspden, a partner at Wilsons Solicitors who is representing the three charities, told Third Sector the decision to appeal was about more than the immediate gain the charities stood to make.
"What the charities are trying to do in bringing this to the Supreme Court’s attention is gain clarity and certainty as to how the act will be applied in these circumstances so they can try to reduce the amount of litigation there is and give more certainty to people who want to leave money to charity in their will," he said.
The Supreme Court would consider hearing the case only if it felt there was an issue of wider public importance at stake, said Aspden.
"We wouldn’t appeal if we didn’t think it needed to be addressed and if we didn’t think there was a reasonably good prospect of dealing with this," he said.
"But what we would count as success would be clarifying how the court should be applying this act in the circumstances, because that will be so much more important for the future."
The inheritance act stipulates that a parent’s will must make "reasonable financial provision" for the "maintenance" of child – but in Ilott’s case it has been applied even though the person in question is now an adult.
It is not known when the case will be heard, although Aspden estimated it could be between 10 and 16 months, depending on how many days the case was likely to take up.
In a joint statement, the charities said they were "immensely grateful" for legacy gifts and endeavours to fulfil their benefactor’s wishes.
The statement said: "We are delighted to have been given permission to bring these issues before the Supreme Court and look forward to the resulting clarity this should bring for the charity sector as a whole, as well as the renewed confidence a clear decision at the highest level will give those making their wills that their wishes will be respected."
The decision to grant the charities a hearing was also welcomed by Chris Millward, chief executive of the Institute of Legacy Management.
He said: "The issue here is that when someone includes in their will a legacy to a charity of their choice, they fully expect their wishes to be honoured.
"Previous rulings went against that commonly accepted expectation and were of concern to many of our members.
"This case has been in and out of the courts for nearly a decade. With this latest announcement we hope a ruling will soon be made that reflects Mrs Jackson’s original wishes and the matter will be closed."
Alex McDowell, chair of the consortium Remember A Charity, warned that the potential impact of a lost legacy could be considerable for charities.