Student sues lawyers for pounds 2m over will 'negligence'

The world's second largest legal firm was "palpably negligent" in failing to speed up the execution of the will of a wealthy property developer despite knowing there was a "very substantial risk" that he might die, the High Court was told yesterday.

Old Etonian Dominic Trusted, 22, yesterday launched a pounds 2m claim against legal firm Clifford Chance and partners David Bowyer and George Staples, now head of the Serious Fraud Office, for his share of his great-uncle Eric Hopton's pounds 50m estate.

The student, who is receiving legal aid, claims the firm was negligent in failing to process the revised will of Mr Hopton, 72, who died in January, 1991, 10 months after he suffered a serious heart attack.

"It is our case that the defendants were indeed negligent, certainly in failing from hearing of Mr Hopton's illness, in taking any steps to seek to ensure that he executed his new will prior to his death," David Oliver QC, said.

Mr Oliver said Mr Trusted, due to receive pounds 50,000 under the terms of a will drawn up in 1984, would have received a much greater sum under the new will.

A similar action by Lady Delves-Broughton, the wife of Mr Hopton's late best friend, who had looked after Mr Hopton for the last years of his life, was discontinued earlier this month. The court heard that Mr Hopton had been so desperate to sort out his affairs and reduce his liability for inheritance tax that he had even considered a "marriage of convenience" whereby his new "wife" would distribute the funds at his death.

Mr Hopton, owner of the Belgravia Property Company, spent months negotiating the terms of his new will with David Bowyer. On 21 December, Mr Hopton had travelled to Devon, when he was taken seriously ill. On 3 January, Lady Delves-Broughton brought him back to London, a day after Mr Bowyer had been informed of his illness.

Mr Bowyer had been advised by Christopher Hopton, Eric Hopton's nephew, that he should not contact him about the will or "send him any letters that might worry him."

Seven days later Mr Hopton died. "At a point where it was well known to the defendants that he did wish to alter the provisions of his will ... we submit it was palpably negligent to fail to take any steps," Mr Oliver said.

The case was adjourned until Monday.