A UNIVERSITY lecturer said today it was "regrettable" the RSPCA had fought to stop her inheriting a £2.4 million Yorkshire family farm after appeal judges gave their reasons for overturning a will leaving it to the animal charity.
Dr Christine Gill said the charity had chosen to "fight me all the way". "It has been an enormous burden on me and my family." The RSPCA now faces an enormous bill after costs orders for the case were mainly made on the indemnity basis - the highest level of assessment usually used to show the displeasure of the court towards a party.
The unanimous decision of the three Court of Appeal judges, led by Master of the Rolls, Lord Neuberger, was that the will of Dr Gill's mother, Joyce, which left everything to the RSPCA after her husband's death, was invalid because she had not understood what she was doing.
The High Court had declared the will to be invalid because Joyce had been coerced by her husband, John, into making it. In October 2009, Christine Gill had won her case in the High Court in Leeds after a three-year battle against the RSPCA over her late mother's 1993 will which left 287-acre Potto Carr Farm, near Northallerton to the charity.
Neither John nor Joyce were members of the RSPCA. Joyce suffered from agoraphobia and from severe anxiety. John died in 1999. The court had found that he had been a "bully" and a "domineering" man. Christine, 59, had moved into a property which was next to the family farm and for over 30 years worked there in what the judge called "hard, strenuous physical labour" and cared for her parents.
She had an expectation, based on assurances from both parents, that she would inherit the farm. The trial judge said it would be "unconscionable" if she did not. The trial judge had penalised the RSPCA for being unwilling to even consider mediation and in March this year the RSPCA announced it would appeal.
Christine Gill, who continues to work as a lecturer at the University of Leeds, said "After last year's judgment, the RSPCA attempted to justify their stance by saying they were obliged under charity law to defend the claim to trial, that it was a compassionate organisation and that I was the barrier to settlement. The RSPCA refused to accept the judge's decision and I have had to endure another year of stress."
She added: "We tried to settle this before the appeal. I even offered to set aside an area of the farm as a wildlife sanctuary as part of a deal, but the RSPCA weren't interested. Because of what the Court of Appeal has found, the RSPCA will end up paying more costs now than they would have done had they accepted the original decision."
Her lawyer, Mark Keenan of Mishcon de Reya, said: "This is the end of the case which has cost the RSPCA dear. Christine has won a great victory having fought a long and difficult battle against a powerful adversary. She did this for her family and for their livelihood. I am delighted for her, her husband, Andrew, and their son, Christopher."
A spokesman for the RSPCA said the charity was "pleased" the appeal court had restated the principle that people should be free to leave their property as they choose. "We are obviously deeply disappointed that Mrs Gill's will in favour of the RSPCA has been overturned. Despite the Lord Justices' cautionary words that the decision should not be seen as a green light to disappointed relatives, we remain concerned about the erosion of freedom to leave one's money to whoever people choose."