Law: It could be you that's being sued

Lottery litigation is the newest game in town as greed and opportunism stalk Lady Luck. And the lawyers are loving every minute of it.
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Family bickering. Friends and colleagues at each other's throats. Greed, avarice and envy. All in ready supply for banner headlines on any story about the National Lottery.

Even before it was launched on a British public feverish with anticipation in November 1994, the lottery was the subject of intense debate. Clergy and politicians of all political hues railed against it as morally suspect and corrupting, not to mention it being an unofficial tax on the poor. But more recently, lottery winnings have become increasingly the preserve of the courts. There is a new game in town: lottery litigation. And the big winners are the lawyers.

Last week, Denise Harrison from Walsall said she was instructing solicitors in an effort to claim a share of the estate of one Roy Wilson. About 18 months ago, Mr Wilson picked up pounds 1.1m in a lottery jackpot. Before his death, Ms Harrison had moved in with Mr Wilson but was not cited in his will, even though, she says, they were planning to marry. Ms Harrison is now to challenge the will, which leaves the fortune to his children from a previous marriage.

Ms Harrison's solicitor, Catherine Elliott of Walsall firm Hadens, says the lottery winnings have provided the trigger to litigation. "If there wasn't the money involved, then we wouldn't be doing anything. The size of the estate makes the cost of litigating worthwhile."

Last month, a court ruled that a wealthy Chinese businessman, Oi Wah Hui, did not have to share his pounds 1.6m lottery jackpot winnings with a man who claimed to have chosen the winning numbers for him. At about the same time, another court ruled that an airline pilot could not have a share in the pounds 3.6m won by his pub syndicate after he had refused to chip in his pounds 1 that week, telling his now former wife to "stick it" when she asked for the contribution.

Mr Oi's solicitor Brendan Pang, a partner at Yeovil-based Clarke Willmott & Clarke, predicts lottery litigation will continue to grow. "There has been litigation involving friends, work colleagues, husbands and wives and relatives and for every dispute that reaches the courts, there will be a considerable number of other disputes which are compromised."

But Mr Pang is less convinced that lottery litigation will become an area of niche practice for lawyers. He points out that the most common legal issues raised in the recent actions have involved basic contract law, although occasionally they have been "dressed up" as claims of a joint venture or partnership. He says lawyers acting in these cases have also relied on accepted concepts of trust law and the principles of constructive and resulting trusts.

"I do not think there are any special skills required from the lawyers. The outcome of the cases tends to be determined by the findings of fact rather than any obscure point of law," he says.

Lottery litigation may not spawn reams of new case law, but the field is still expected to be a profitable one for the lawyers involved. Says Mr Pang: "From a lawyer's perspective, I expect the only attraction about lottery litigation is the amount of money often in dispute and the fact that the general public's obsession with the lottery will ensure that the case will be well publicised."

That view is supported elsewhere. Ian de Freitas, a partner in the litigation and dispute resolution department of City law firm Paisners, which advises the National Lottery Charity Board, says: "Whenever money comes into a relationship, there is potential for that relationship to break down."

Mr De Freitas says the most common cause of litigation is carelessness when organising a syndicate. "Often people cannot be bothered to write down agreements before they have won any money. Human nature is such that they don't think they have to address the matter. But people are greedy, so there will always be this sort of dispute ."

He does not suggest standard work or pub-based syndicates should instruct lawyers to draw up agreements, although prior legal advice would be useful to "professional syndicates", those groups that buy more than 100 tickets a week. For the "amateur syndicates", Camelot provides a leaflet on how to construct a "group playing agreement". It advises on the appointment of a syndicate manager and covers the regulation of contributions.

Lawyers point out that much lottery litigation will involve the relationship and agreements between syndicate members. Michael Vincent of Southampton law firm Jasper & Vincent predicts that, ultimately, a tricky scenario will arise involving the death of a syndicate leader where a winning ticket is in that person's name.

Mr Vincent paints a picture of a syndicate winning, the leader collecting the pay-out and then dying before the cash can be shared. "What would be the inheritance tax issues? Would the group be able to claim the money at all? Might there be conflict between the family of the syndicate leader and the group?"

Michael Hayes, a partner at City law firm Macfarlanes, was the first solicitor on Camelot's winners advisory panel. It offers "wise counsel" to winners after the euphoria of becoming multi-millionaires has begun to ebb. He reckons that the law is sufficiently vague in places for a fertile area of practice to grow. In particular, he points to the revival of matrimonial claims after a big win.

But litigation involving lottery winners is not the only area for future disputes. Jeremy Rosenblatt, a London-based family law barrister, is the first "representative of the people" on the National Lottery Charity Board, the group which grants money to applicants for lottery funding. He believes disgruntled applicants may take the board to judicial review after being turned down several times. However, Mr Rosenblatt is relatively confident that the board would survive such a challenge as it takes the precaution of giving all the reasons for its decisions when awarding money.

Where there is vagueness and dispute, lawyers thrive. As Brendan Pang says, litigation is often seen as a lottery. Now an increasing number of lawyers are hoping that the lottery will continue to be seen as litigation.