The RSPCA was ordered to pay the bulk of £1.3 million legal costs yesterday after losing a lengthy court battle over the bequest of a family farm.
Christine Gill, an only child who was disinherited by her mother’s gift to the animal welfare charity, wept with relief last year when a judge ruled that she was entitled to inherit the £2.3 million property. She had laboured for many years on the 287-acre North Yorkshire farm to support her elderly parents.
Dr Gill, 59, a university lecturer, had further cause for celebration yesterday when a judge ruled that the RSPCA should pick up most of the bill for both sides’ legal costs at the High Court in Leeds.
Judge James Allen, QC, punished the charity, which is likely to face a bill of up to £1 million, for refusing to accept mediation or to negotiate before the case came to court. Dr Gill’s costs totalled more than £900,000 and the RSPCA’s about £400,000.
Two and a half years ago the RSPCA rejected an offer by Dr Gill to give the charity roughly three quarters of the estate. The judge said the charity had “clearly displayed a lack of enthusiasm in relation to the resolution of the disputed by a negotiated settlement”.
It emerged during evidence at last year’s hearing that Joyce Gill, a pro-hunting farmer’s widow whose death aged 82 in 2006 led to the shattering disclosure of her will, had an “avowed dislike” of the RSPCA. She thought its supporters were “a bunch of townies who knew nothing about the countryside”.
She was unaware that in 1993 her parents, John and Joyce Gill, had signed mirror wills by which the farm was left initially to the surviving spouse and then to the RSPCA, specifically stating that “no provision” should be made for their daughter.
The RSPCA said last year that it had been “legally obliged to seek the funds under charitable law” after Dr Gill’s parents left a will which “was very clear”. A spokesman said: “As a charity the RSPCA relies entirely on private donations and bequests. If it waives any legacies, its work would suffer enormously and thousands of animals would lose out as a result.”
The RSPCA made two offers to Dr Gill before the case came to trial. The first was an offer of £50,000, equivalent to 2 per cent of the estate, plus her costs. The second, shortly before trial, was £650,000, roughly 28 per cent of the estate, plus her costs.
Yesterday’s judgment described the RSPCA’s reluctance to mediate the case as “unreasonable”. “[Dr Gill] demonstrated a willingness to have recourse to mediation in an attempt to resolve the dispute between the parties and she persevered in her attempts to persuade the [RSPCA] to adopt such a course.
“Despite those attempts the [RSPCA] displayed an attitude ... which was somewhat unreasonable, out of step with the expectation of the court and the underlying spirit of the modern procedure.” Judge Allen reserved a further written judgment on costs until a date next week. The RSPCA has been granted leave to appeal.
Speaking after the hearing, Dr Gill said the judgment “reflects the attitude the RSPCA have taken right through this — they wouldn’t talk to me ever”.
“After last October’s judgment, the RSPCA attempted to justify its stance by saying it was obliged under charity law to defend the claim to trial, that it was a compassionate organisation and that I was a barrier to settlement. Today’s decision sets that straight.”
Mark Keenan, of Mishcon de Reya, said: “Parties who are not prepared to participate in recognised methods of alternative dispute resolution such as mediation will, like the RSPCA, be penalised in costs. This is what has happened today.”
The RSPCA said yesterday that the charity felt that it had acted in accordance with the wishes of Dr Gill’s mother, as expressed in her will, and had seen no reason to doubt her intentions. “At this stage no specific sums have been calculated so we don’t yet know what either bill will be,” it said. “It is therefore too early for us to comment on the costs, however ... we are happy that we are not paying the whole of Dr Gill’s costs.”