Monthly Archives: March 2017

After Ilott

[Apologies – not Legal History. Having a bit of a succession enthusiasm at the moment!]

Not surprising to see press attention on wills, families and charities, following Ilott. The Guardian has a piece about a family aggrieved at the fact that their relative’s will left a large amount of money to a private school:

But the explanation of the Ilott case here is not quite right – Heather Ilott was not awarded money ‘ on the grounds that her mother had acted in an “unreasonable, capricious and harsh” way towards her’, but because she qualified under the Inheritance Act for reasonable financial provision. Not the same thing (there is a better explanation lower down in this rather rushed looking article). Also, it’s rather simplistic to say (as anonymous ‘solicitors’ are made to do here) that Ilott in the Supreme Court straightforwardly upholds testamentary freedom. Clearly not the case when the testator did not want her daughter to get anything, and she was awarded £50,000.

There are much more interesting questions which should arise from the juxtaposition of Ilott and this case (will of Sybil Jenazian), in particular whether charity fundraising techniques could possibly amount to undue influence (the private school ran active fundraising campaigns, predictably targeting particular people connected with it: contrast the less specific connection between Melita Jackson and the animal charities in Ilott). There is also the point that this is about cousins  as opposed to mother-only daughter, as in Ilott, so generally a much harder argument for reasonable financial provision.


From a narrative point of view, the story here does not really match Ilott very closely: it could be summarised as ‘possibly inappropriate pressure on possibly vulnerable testator’ as opposed to the ‘spiteful charity’ trope seen in Ilott.  There is, however, a definite similarity in terms of the huge amount of ill-feeling generated by inheritance and disinheritance.


No longer waiting for Ilott: preliminary thoughts


The Supreme Court heard Ilott v Blue Cross [2017] UKSC 17 before Christmas, and has now published its decision in this, one of the biggest cases on succession law in several years:

It was a case about a will, and, specifically about an adult daughter’s challenge to her mother’s determined efforts to leave her nothing of her (relatively modest) estate. The mother in question, Mrs Melita Jackson, had instead favoured a group of charities, and had left specific instructions that any attempt by her daughter, Heather Ilott, to upset this arrangement should be resisted. Heather did indeed mount a challenge, based on the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependents) Act 1975. This allows a range of relations and connections of a deceased person to claim reasonable financial provision from the estate, under certain circumstances.

The case had gone through several stages before this, with judges interpreting the Act, and their own task under it, in rather different ways. While most seemed content to accept that Heather Ilott should be given some sort of support from her mother’s estate, there were varying views as to what sort of an award she should receive – how much, and in what form, and what should it represent?

The (unanimous) Supreme Court decided to allow the appeal of the charities in this case, which, as far as Heather Ilott was concerned, meant that the provision she would be getting from the estate went back to £50,000, the sum fixed on by DJ Million, rather than the substantially higher figure which the Court of Appeal had decided upon.

In real life, Heather Ilott’s loss may not be as large as it appears from these bald facts: the SC judgment makes it apparent that some sort of arrangement has been made between the charities and Heather Ilott, presumably to soften the blow of this decrease in provision. From the point of view of the charities, this was clearly a difficult case to handle, since they risked looking extremely, well, uncharitable in trying to reduce the award made to a woman who was, clearly, in unfavourable financial circumstances. Nevertheless, it was clearly important to them not to concede ground in the area of challenges to money left to them by will, given that this is one of their major sources of income.

The decision itself, although it is in favour of the charities involved, and has been welcomed by the charity sector more generally, is relatively cautious. It is hedged about by the familiar reluctance to define terms, insistence that cases turn on their own facts, and comes complete with a Lady Hale critique of the current state of the law (and the failure of the Law Commission to deal with its problems). It was not to be expected that one case could deal with the genuine and longstanding tensions between a feeling that a person should be able to do as she wishes with her own property, a power extending even after death, and an instinct that there is an obligation to support and maintain particular close relations, if found ‘deserving’ (or at least ‘not undeserving’). (It is often suggested that ‘testamentary freedom’, unaffected by the latter obligation, had a relatively short life-span, but that is to ignore the centuries of exploitation of a variety of devices – particularly, but not only, those involving uses and trusts – to achieve control beyond death in the pattern of succession to land and personal property.) On top of that ancient tension, there are large issues of principle in relation to the relevance of tax and benefits considerations in these sorts of decision, deserving of more rounded and thorough consideration than would be possible on one individual set of circumstances. No doubt both the implications of Ilott itself and the wider issues will be considered in detail by succession law commentators in the coming months.

It has been a long drawn out case for those involved. For those of us watching it unfold, it has been interesting in many ways. The Supreme Court case before Christmas was the first televised SC case I have ever watched (and yes, I did watch it all the way through!), which was quite educational, if not especially dynamic. I have also found it instructive to look at the press coverage of the case. There is a lot of criticism of the deceased mother, Melita Jackson, who is characterised as spiteful and unreasonable. This draws upon comments by counsel, claimant and judges. It may or may not be fair – Mrs Jackson is not around to give her side of the story, or to object to the way in which she has been portrayed. The lack of an opportunity to answer back is inevitable in wills cases, but it can be rather uncomfortable: I find it rather disturbing seeing such one-sided contentions about deceased people (I found the airing of the alleged delusions of a woman with Alzheimer’s in Lloyd v Jones [2016] EWHC 1308 (Ch) particularly sad: I don’t think any of us would like to think that the general public would one day hear the claim that we had had delusions involving aliens, witches, dead people and being burgled or poisoned by Saddam Hussein, and were incontinent). It would also be interesting to examine the comments in Ilott and in comparable cases to see whether certain types of criticism are more likely to be applied to female as opposed to male testators: that’s going on my list of ‘one of these days’ projects. (At least one very gendered ‘below the line’ comment here sums up the case as entrenching ‘the human right to be a b***h’ – their stars, not mine: ).

It has been interesting to observe the Telegraph, and, in particular the Daily Mail, as they make very apparent the tensions noted above. Although Heather Ilott (despite having claimed various benefits and tax credits over many years, and thus not being the sort of person they usually favour) is generally portrayed in a fairly sympathetic light, there is also a clear concern with testamentary freedom (particularly when defence of testamentary freedom can be combined with a dig at ‘out of touch’ judges: ), and, when wider conclusions are drawn from the litigation, the reader tends to be cast in the role of testator, rather than badly-off IHA claiman (e.g. )

(If anyone wants to see a somewhat lower level of commentary, then the ‘below the line’ comments on the Express article on the case are a good (in the sense of predictable and depressing) place to start:

So – lots to think about: certainly in terms of immediate effects, but also in terms of attitudes revealed by the case and its coverage, and in terms of longer historical traditions of allowing and limiting control of property beyond death. No doubt I will be coming back to this.


GS 15/3/2017

Further coverage

A couple of days on, we get this in the Guardian: – a condemnation of charities for ‘interfering’ in contested wills. It may be right to say that there are problems with public trust of charities, but it seems harsh to describe the charities’ conduct here as ‘interfering’, since the initial active part was taken by the daughter of the deceased, asking for an alteration in the way in which the deceased’s estate should be shared out, and then asking for a larger share than was awarded at first instance. The article plays down the idea that the case has precedent value – clearly it is very important for charities to know where they stand on the vulnerability of wills which leave them money. It also ignores the fact that there does seem to have been some arrangement to limit the actual impact of the decision on the daughter in the case. It looks to me as if the charities were very well aware of the possible PR issue. Whatever one thinks about the weight which should be attached to testtamentary freedom, this does look like an issue which needed a thorough workout in court, in an effort to sort things out for the future. Whether Ilott has done that is, of course, a different matter…

18/3/ 2017 General message that we should be able to do what we like in our wills in Janet Street-Porter’s opinion piece: – though might have been an idea to read the judgment or summary a bit more carefully … suggestion here is that the will ‘stands’ and Heather Ilott gets nothing – the SC just put things back to DJ Million’s conclusion that Heather Ilott should get a lower sum than the CA awarded.

The Art of Law: update

An area in which many legal historians have become increasingly interested in recent years is the visual composition of legal records. I gave a paper on this at the British Legal History Conference in 2013 ( ), highlighting the need to integrate the images from the Common Pleas rolls into the King’s Bench-dominated view acquired from Erna Auerbach’s work, and have also made some comments on visual material in this blog ( ). In a 2015 blog post, I noted the appearance of a thought-provoking study of the visual material in the CP rolls in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries: Elizabeth A Danbury and Kathleen L Scott, ‘The Plea Rolls of the Court of Common Pleas: an unused source for the art and history of later medieval England. 1422-1509’. The Antiquaries Journal, 95  (2015), 157-210. This looks at the rise of decoration and illustration in the CP rolls in this period, and explores the iconography of the images and the meanings of words and mottoes associated with them. There is much of interest in the identification of particular kings and other characters, and the discussion of the way in which particular images fit in with contemporary political events. I am also intrigued by the mysterious popularity of dragons in these records. Helpfully, there are several good-quality photographs of key images.

Medieval historians are naturally drawn to the political ramifications of the images. I think that legal historians can and should also consider the implications of the illustration and decoration which relates to the image or self-image of particular courts. Auerbach’s work saw the inclusion of loyal, royal pictures in the KB rolls as something which flowed from the particular connection of the monarch with that court. Noting that the CP also included such images makes that conclusion less secure. There is also the issue of the inclusion of decoration and mottoes associated with the names of judges, which deserves some consideration in connection with the image they were trying to project. Finally, there is the intriguing issue of the expected ‘consumers’ of these images: who would have seen them? Did our ‘clerk-illustrators’ imagine that they were drawing only for their immediate colleagues and contemporaries, or for posterity?



Going back to all this for another project, it seems to me that there is still a lot to explore here. In particular, I was intrigued at the illustrations at the foot of one late 15th C roll, associated with the name Forster. A couple of the illustrations have come up in recent tweets and on the cover of a recent book, but there is room for a study on ‘the Forster hand’ and its illustrations – ranging from a female tavern worker, to a woman clubbing a man, to a self-harming chimera, a rosary, a heron/crane gobbling a snake/eel, and fish (with nostrils) – all in CP 40/840 – Common Pleas roll for Michaelmas 1471. definitely going to pursue this character through some other rolls.

Gwen Seabourne