Visitors to the website of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals are told that more than half of the charity's annual income – which totalled almost £120m in 2008 – comes from legacies in wills. "We're incredibly grateful to these thoughtful animal lovers and, as with any donation, their gifts will be put to good use," the site says.
But John Mason, whose brother George bequeathed more than £480,000 to the charity when he died, would probably disagree. The 85-year-old, from Enfield in north London, recently joined a growing list of people who have been dragged through the courts by the RSPCA after disagreements with the charity.
In his will, Mr Mason's brother divided his £1m fortune between the charity, his brother and two of his closest friends, Norman and Patricia Sharp. But, under Britain's complicated tax laws, the RSPCA was concerned it was going to have to pay inheritance tax on its share of the estate. So it took Mr Mason and the Sharps to court to try to get them to pay some of the tax out of their bequests.
However, at the High Court in London last week, Mr Justice Peter Smith dismissed the claim and ordered the RSPCA to pay the costs. The judge said the charity's case had been "extremely weak and should not have been brought", and refused to give it permission to appeal.
He said it was "clear" from George Mason's will that he had never intended for any tax liability to fall on his brother or friends. Despite the ruling, he said, the RSPCA would still receive £370,000 of Mr Mason's money.
"Everybody knew that George was an animal lover, so [his will] wasn't a surprise at all," said Jonathan Toop, John Mason's godson. "The surprise was when the letters from Withers [RSPCA's solicitors] started arriving. We decided that the only way forward was to try to stand up to them. To be honest, we didn't think they would ever take it to court, because their position was so tenuous and their argument was so technical we thought they wouldn't risk it."
Clare Kelly, John Mason's solicitor, said she thought it was "quite disgusting" that a donation which had been left in good faith by an elderly animal lover had been used to pursue his relatives for more money. "You'd think that a charity that had essentially had a windfall of £370,000 would not then think: 'Let's go for more,'" she said. "I don't know why they're playing such a tough game. My view is that it's a complete misuse of the funding they're getting. In this case they were left several hundred thousand pounds, and they were trying to get several hundred thousand more."
Ms Kelly added that Mr Mason would have struggled to cover the costs if he lost, and found the proceedings "very distressing".
This entire case has made me think very carefully about what I do with money," she said. "I think people leave money to charity to do good. But had [Mr Mason] known that this was how his brother would be treated then he probably would have thought much more carefully about what he did with the money." Another legal source who observed the proceedings said there had been "no merit" in the RSPCA's case. "I could not believe it went as far as court. What would possess any charity to make such claims and to put people through that is beyond me. Pure greed is the only logical explanation I can come up with," the source said. A further notable recent case is that of Dr Christine Gill, 59, pictured below, an academic from North Yorkshire who took the charity to court over the inheritance of her parents' £2.3m farm. She won her battle after the judge ruled that her father had coerced her mother into drawing up a will in which she left the farm to the charity. Last week, the RSPCA was ordered to pay the bulk of the hefty £1.3m legal costs.
"I was a little bit daunted by the fact that it was an extremely wealth charity," said Dr Gill, who is now waiting to see if the RSPCA will appeal against the decision. "If you're infinitely rich like the RSPCA then it doesn't matter, but my family could have been out on the streets if it had all gone badly wrong. I've been very fortunate really. I know they're a charity in favour of animals, but the way they treat people seems to be rather harsh. It would be nice to just get on with my life. The money worries, always waiting for decisions. It just takes you over. It's an overwhelming thing, a constant cloud in the sky."
One of the judge's main criticisms of the RSPCA in the Gill case was its "unreasonable" attitude towards mediation: nobody from the charity agreed to meet Dr Gill to hammer out a settlement before the case came to court.
"I think there's been a perception that charities are seen as a soft touch in will disputes, and there was a conscious decision by the RSPCA to send a message that they weren't a soft touch any more," said Dr Gill's solicitor, Mark Keenan. "But this was not the right case to do that. Had they met Christine, I think that their views would have changed."
But Paul Hewitt, a partner at Withers law firm who fought the RSPCA's case against Mr Mason, told The Independent yesterday that he felt the ruling in that case had been "grossly unfair" and that the judge had been "wrong" to dismiss the case. He also pointed out that the "vast majority" of legacy cases in which the charity is involved are settled out of court.
"Although I do a lot of work for charities, I hardly ever go to court, because one always tried to sort out these things in advance. But resolving it wasn't possible here," he said. "The RSPCA did not take the decision to do this lightly. We thought, and we still do, that we were honouring Mr Mason's wishes.
"If I say to a charity: 'I'm leaving you £200,000', and the charity only receives £50,000, should it just walk away? If the benefactor wants the charity to have this money, the charity has an obligation to use it. It would be a breach of the trustees' duties if they walked away from bequests."
A spokeswoman for the RSPCA said: "Each case is examined on its merits. Where it seems appropriate to seek a settlement without resorting to court action then of course we will do so. Over the last 17 years we have processed a total of over 30,000 bequests. Of this figure in only 30 instances have we been involved in court proceedings."
When asked how it justified spending people's legacy donations on court costs, the charity said: "Of course we would rather spend monies generously left to us on direct animal welfare, but it is because their last wishes have been questioned that charities find themselves in having to defend their generosity. If we were to ignore their wishes it could be argued that no animals would ever benefit from any such legacy that comes to us.
"We are a charity devoted to the cause of animal welfare, and we believe that our donors would expect us to ensure that we receive people's kind bequests. Indeed we could be criticised for being negligent in this regard."
Cracking down on cruelty: The world's first animal welfare charity
*The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded in 1824 in a London coffee shop by 22 men, becoming the world's first animal welfare charity. An important founding member was Richard Martin, an MP and early animal rights activist who pushed through the first government Bill against cruelty, giving cattle, horses and sheep some protection.
*Initially, it focused its efforts on animals such as "pit ponies" working in coal mines. In 1832 it successfully convicted 181 people for animal cruelty.
*In 1835, pressure from the charity's members helped to pass "Pease's Act", which consolidated an earlier animal cruelty law. The Act extended rights to dogs and other domestic animals, banned bear-baiting and cock-fighting, and created better standards for slaughter houses.
*In 1837 the charity was granted Royal patronage, and Queen Victoria gave it permission to add the "Royal" in 1840.
*Famous members included Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, who wrote an ode to the RSPCA entitled "Compassion" to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 1924.
*During the First World War, the charity set up a fund to alleviate the suffering of horses serving on the Western Front in northern France. The money paid for equipment to be supplied to the Royal Army Veterinary Hospitals, which treated 725,000 horses in France during the war.