Solicitors held negligent in failing to protect

interest of son whose Mother changed her Will

after meeting Barrister 41 years her junior

The Court of Appeal in London has overruled the High Court and has found that a well-known Firm of Solicitors was negligent in failing to protect the interests of an Oxford Professor whose mother changed her Will, leaving her home worth £1.25m to Wendy Cook, a Barrister.

Dr. Jean Weddell made a decision in 2003 to leave her London home to her son Professor Christopher Godsen. However in 2007 Dr. Weddell, the deceased, entered into a Civil Partnership with a Barrister, Wendy Cook when Dr. Weddell was 78 and Ms. Cook was 41.

Dr. Weddell died in 2013 having made a new Will leaving everything to Ms. Cook. After the death of his mother Professor Godsen discovered that he had inherited nothing from his Mother and that she had in fact sold the house in 2010 and at the time of her death her estate was valued at a mere €5,000.

Professor Godsen issued Proceedings against Halliwell Landau alleging negligence and said that a Trust Scheme which had been set up in 2003 to minimise inheritance tax should have put a note on the Land Registry file so as to give him and his Wife notice of any intended sale so that he would have an opportunity to intervene.

Professor Godsen contended that he would not have consented to the sale of the property in all of the circumstances.

The Plaintiffs alleged that the Solicitors were negligent in failing to ensure that a restriction was registered in the Land Registry which would have prevented the property being sold without their knowledge.

Last year in the High Court Judge Pelling ruled that the Solicitors were negligent but dismissed the claim against them on the basis that Professor Godsen had not established to the satisfaction of the Court that the negligence of the Solicitors had caused him any loss and he found that even if Professor Godsen and his Wife Professor Jane Kaye had known of the intended sale of the house, the deceased would have persuaded them to agree to it being sold and the proceeds forming part of her estate.

The Court of Appeal disagreed with this finding of fact by the Trial Judge and ruled that Professor Godsen would not have consented to the sale of the property as he did not trust his late mother’s new Civil Partner. The three Judge Panel in the Court of Appeal unanimously concluded that the Plaintiff and his Wife would not have consented to the sale as they had concerns about the deceased’s capacity and were of the view that the deceased’s Civil Partner Dr. Weddell had a malign influence on the deceased in relation to how she arranged her affairs.

The Court of Appeal came to the conclusion that the failure of Halliwell Landau to register the restriction in the Land Registry deprived the Plaintiffs of the power to intervene in and possibly prevent the sale of the property.

The previous Will of the deceased executed in 2003 left the deceased’s entire estate to Professor Godsen. The new Will left nothing to him.

Both the High Court and the Court of Appeal gave extensive details of the facts surrounding this case, the biography of the deceased and her Partner and the relationship between Professor Godsen and his mother. The deceased was a well-known and illustrious Physician and her son Professor Godsen is Director of the Institute of Archaeology at Oxford University. Professor Godsen is also a Trustee of the British Museum. Prior to the making of the new Will Professor Godsen and his Wife Professor Kaye were Trustees of an estate Protection Scheme which put the deceased’s London home into a Trust which promised to deliver the property or the proceeds of sale to the Plaintiff and his family in a tax efficient manner and Professor Godsen and his Wife would have had control over that. However the new Will made in 2010 deprived the Plaintiff of his position as Trustee and the failure to register a restriction in the Court. Shortly after the Will was changed in 2010 the property was sold for £710,000.

The Court accepted the evidence of the Plaintiff that it had been the intention of the deceased to ensure that the house which was a much loved family home would pass to the Plaintiff but instead the deceased’s Civil Partner sold the property shortly after the demise of Dr. Weddell.

The deceased and her Civil Partner had moved to live in the Isle of Wight after which contact between the deceased and the Plaintiff had diminished. The Court of Appeal said that it could find no basis upon which the High Court Judge could have found that the Plaintiffs would have consented to the sale given the level of distrust between the Plaintiff and the deceased’s Civil Partner and their view of her behaviour.

The Court of Appeal therefore overturned the finding of the High Court that there was no loss to the Plaintiff and allowed the Appeal and found that the Solicitors were liable for his losses arising from their negligence.

The deceased’s Civil Partner, Wendy Cook was not a party to the Action.

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This document is for information purposes only and does not purport to represent legal advice.  
© O’Rourke Reid 2020