RSPCA told to pay lecturer's £1m legal bill in row over will

Victory for daughter whose mother left family farm to animal welfare charity
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The Independent Online

The RSPCA received a stinging rebuke from a judge yesterday and was ordered to pay an estimated £1m legal bill after it repeatedly refused offers of mediation during a long-running court battle over an estate that had been left to the charity in a contentious will.

Christine Gill, a university lecturer from Northallerton, North Yorkshire, fought a two-year legal battle with the animal charity after Potto Carr Farm, her parents' £2m estate near Northallerton, was left to the charity instead of her.

Last October a court declared the will invalid after evidence showed how Dr Gill's mother had often expressed her dislike of the charity and described it as "a bunch of townies who knew nothing about the countryside". The court also decided that Dr Gill's father had pressured his wife to change her will and disinherit her daughter.

Yesterday lawyers representing both sides went back to court in an attempt to divide up the enormous legal costs for the case, which have run to £1.3m and taken up more than 2,000 lawyer hours. In the end Judge James Allen decided to punish the RSPCA for "unreasonable" behaviour and displaying "a lack of enthusiasm in relation to the resolution of the dispute by a negotiated settlement".

The court heard how Dr Gill had tried to reach a negotiated settlement with the RSPCA on three separate occasions but each time its lawyers refused to compromise. In August 2007 Dr Gill offered to give the RSPCA £350,000 as well as two fields and payment costs but she was rebuffed. In return the RSPCA offered her £50,000, which she also rejected.

A month later Dr Gill returned with an improved offer which would have given the RSPCA almost £1.8m of the £2.3m estate but this was also rejected. In June 2008 Dr Gill tried another attempt to avoid going to court and offered the animal charity part of the farm worth approximately £850,000 and all the money in bank accounts connected to the estate. This was also not accepted by the charity.

The exact costs to be paid out by the charity will be decided at a hearing next week but the RSPCA, which has assets worth £160m, is likely to be landed with at least £1m of the total legal bill.

Speaking after the hearing yesterday Dr Gill said she was relieved to know that the majority of costs would be paid for by the charity.

"The judgment reflects the attitude the RSPCA have taken right through this. They wouldn't talk to me ever," she said.

"After last October's judgment, the RSPCA attempted to justify its stance by saying it was obliged under charity law to defend the claim to trial, that it was a compassionate organisation and that I was the barrier to settlement. Today's decision sets the record straight."

The RSPCA, which the judgment stated would be able to recover some of its costs from the estate, said it had acted in accordance with the wishes of Dr Gill and had no reason to doubt her intentions.

In a statement, a spokeswoman said: "At this stage no specific sums have been calculated so we don't yet know what either bill will be. However, we are happy that the judge has ordered that some of our costs are to come out of the estate and that we are not paying the whole of Dr Gill's legal costs."