The animal charities the RSPCA, the RSPB and the Blue Cross attended a hearing in the Supreme Court this morning in the latest stage of their 12-year battle to receive a £500,000 legacy gift, part of which was redirected last year by the courts to the benefactor’s daughter.
In February the charities were granted leave to appeal the legacy case, known as the Ilott-Mitson case, to the Supreme Court.
It centres on the bequest of a woman called Melita Jackson, who left her entire £486,000 estate to the three charities when she died in 2004. In 2007, £50,000 of Jackson’s legacy was awarded by the courts to her estranged daughter, Heather Ilott, but the amount was trebled to £163,000 in July 2015 after she challenged the initial ruling. The charities are appealing this second award.
A spokesman for the RSPCA told Third Sector that today’s hearing would simply hear the arguments of both sides – the charities and Ilott – and a judgment on the case was not expected until the new year, possibly in spring.
The case represents the first time the Supreme Court has been asked to consider the provisions of the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, which stipulates that a parent’s will must make "reasonable financial provision" for the "maintenance" of a child, according to James Aspden, a partner at Wilsons Solicitors, who is representing the three charities.
He said in a statement the charities were appealing in order to obtain "essential clarity" from the Supreme Court regarding the scope of its power to interfere with a person’s testamentary wishes using the act.
"Mrs Jackson made clear in her will that her entire £500,000 estate should be left to the charities to help animals and wild birds in need, and she specified that none should go to her daughter from whom she had been estranged for 26 years and who had been financially independent from her for more than two decades," he said.
The statement said an important part of the charities’ case was that charities should not be considered any less deserving than other types of beneficiary and greater certainty as to the court’s use of its powers would benefit not only the charities involved, but also the charity sector as a whole and the public.
Aspden said the importance of the case on public policy grounds was evidenced by the court taking the unusual measure of sitting with seven rather than five Supreme Court justices.
According to the Supreme Court website, the issues that will have been discussed today include: whether the Court of Appeal was wrong to award Ilott a sum of £50,000 in 2007 after she challenged the will; whether the Court of Appeal erred in taking account of Ilott’s situation at the date of her appeal rather than the date of the original hearing; and whether the Court of Appeal erred in its approach to the "maintenance" standard under the inheritance act.
The Supreme Court will also have considered whether the Court of Appeal was wrong to structure an award under the act in a way that allowed Ilott to continue claiming state benefits and whether it erred in its application of the "balancing exercise" – where the court must weigh up any competing factors – required under the act.
Chris Millward, chief executive of the Institute of Legacy Management, said many in the charity and legacy sectors were greatly interested in the outcome of the case. "We hope that the Supreme Court hearing will bring clarity to the issue of testamentary freedom for charities and donors once and for all," he said.