The RSPCA Appeal - Gill v Woodall - Lessons From The Court Of Appeal's Judgment

The Court of Appeal (Ld Neuberger MR, Lloyd LJ, Jackson LJ) has published its reasons for rejecting the RSPCA's appeal in the case of Gill v Woodall [2010] EWCA Civ 1430.

The case could raise serious disquiet for testators concerned over whether their intentions will be respected by their family and the courts and for charities which could lose out to disappointed family members. Perhaps sensing this, the Court took steps to confine the case to its facts, but there are some lessons which may be drawn.

The decision

On the face of it, the will should not have been open to challenge. It was relatively straightforward, drawn up by a solicitor and explained to the testatrix at the solicitor's office, where it was executed. The will was unconventional in that it left everything to charity and nothing to the testatrix's only daughter, but in English law, with some limited exceptions, a testator/rix may be as capricious as they like in making their testamentary dispositions; we have no forced heirship regime requiring certain provision to be made for family members. There are, however, grounds upon which the integrity of a will or legacy may be challenged, such as lack of capacity, or the grounds raised in this case.

The testatrix's daughter, Dr Christine Gill, had succeeded at first instance in having her mother's will quashed on the basis of undue influence by the testatrix's husband. The judge had also found that Dr Gill would have succeeded on the basis of proprietary estoppel. The RSPCA appealed against both of these decisions; Dr Gill cross-appealed against the judge's decision that her mother knew and approved the contents of her will.

Very unusually, the Court of Appeal reversed the first instance judge on the facts of the case, finding that the judge was wrong to conclude that the testatrix knew and approved of the contents of her Will, and so found for Dr Gill on that basis.

No judgment was given on the two bases for the first instance decision. In fact, the Court did not hear argument on proprietary estoppel, having already made its decision.

It had been hoped that the appeal decision would bring some clarity to this area. Instead, it risks doing the opposite, but it is to be hoped that it will be confined to its facts, which the court emphasised were "very unusual" (paras 19 and 23), "unusual" (para 62), "quite exceptional" (para 65), "altogether extraordinary" (para 69) and "remarkable" (para 73).

The case was made very difficult by a...

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