Supreme Court backs charities in landmark legacy case

Written by Joe Lepper

Three animal charities have won their long running legal dispute over a legacy gift worth just under £500,000, following a Supreme Court ruling.

The £486,000 estate of Melita Jackson had been left to Blue Cross, the RSPB and the RSPCA when she died in 2004.

This was since challenged by her daughter Heather Ilott, who claimed she had been unreasonably excluded and was initially awarded £50,000 from the estate by a district judge in 2007.

This was increased to £163,000 by the Court of Appeal eight years later so that she could buy her home.

But the Supreme Court has unanimously ruled in favour of the three charities, reversing the Court of Appeal’s decision and reinstating the original £50,000 award.

In delivering the Supreme Court’s ruling, which considered the scope of judges' powers under the 1975 Inheritance Act, Lord Hughes said: “Charities depend heavily on testamentary bequests for their work, which is by definition of public benefit and in many cases will be for demonstrably humanitarian purpose.

“More fundamentally, these charities were the chosen beneficiaries of the deceased. They did not have to justify a claim on the basis of need under the 1975 Act, as Mrs Ilott necessarily had to do".

The decision, which is final and cannot be appealed, has been welcomed by the three charities.

In a joint statement they said: “We are pleased that the Supreme Court has given welcome reassurance that - save in limited and specific circumstances – the wishes recorded in a person's will must be respected.

“Blue Cross, RSPCA and RSPB and the charitable sector as a whole, rely on generous gifts left in wills, without which much of their valuable work could not be done. This judgement will allow us to continue to honour the wishes of individuals who choose to remember charities in their will.”

Wilsons Solicitors partner James Aspden, who represented the three charities, added: “The Supreme Court's unanimous ruling confirms, very clearly, that we are in general free to choose who will inherit our property when we die.  It clears up a number of points where the law had become uncertain and will enable people drafting wills to give clearer advice to their clients. 

“The most important message it sends is that your wishes matter and that if you choose to record those wishes in a will, they will be listened to."

The wider charity sector has also backed the judgment with ACEVO chief executive Vicky Browning calling it a “vital ruling for the charity sector”.

She added: “The people who leave legacies to charities are often some of our most dedicated supporters, and we need to honour the commitment they have made.

“It is important that when people write their wills and leave money to a cause which is close to their heart, they can be sure that their wishes will be respected. The charity sector rightly strives towards better relationships with its donors, and this move is an important step towards this.’

Rob Cope, director of Legacy consortium Remember A Charity said the ruling will give clarity over wills “ensuring that anyone’s last wishes are set out clearly”.

“The fact is that contested wills are becoming more common, so it is important for charities to reduce the likelihood of a legal battle by encouraging supporters who want to leave a legacy to seek professional advice when writing a will,” he added.

Ilot is “naturally disappointed” by the outcome said her solicitor Martin Oliver, a partner at Wright Hassall, in a statement.

He added: “It has been accepted that Heather was entitled to bring a claim for reasonable
financial provision and has received £50,000 from her mother’s estate.

“Heather has never wanted to be in the limelight or to be at the centre of a legal
debate which polarises public opinion.”

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