If there are lessons to be learned from the Illot case, it is that appellate courts should be slow to interfere with a trial judge’s initial ruling. That was the opinion of Professor Leslie King from the University of Law, speaking at the annual conference of the national organisation, Solicitors for the Elderly. She referred to a recent Supreme Court ruling on a case that has spanned more than a decade where a woman challenged her late mother’s will. The case focused on the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependents) Act 1975.
When Melita Jackson died in 2004, she left her estate – valued at £486,000 – to three charities, the RSPCA, Blue Cross and the RSPB, organisations she had no connection to while alive. Her daughter, Heather Ilott, was Mrs Jackson’s only child, but they had been estranged for twenty-six years. The case first came to the courts in 2007. District Judge Million awarded £50,000 to Mrs Ilott, an amount meant to stand for an annual income of £4,000. Mrs Ilott appealed against the order. She sought enough funds to buy her housing association home – some £140,000, money that would relieve her of a liability of just under £5,000 a year.
In 2015, the Court of Appeal asked whether the district judge’s order should be put aside because it was wrong. The appeal was allowed, and the order was set aside. The Court ruled there were fundamental errors in the judge’s reasoning. Firstly, the judge limited his award to an amount that was the same as the appellant’s state benefits, his reasoning being that Mrs Ilott had been able to live within her means for a long time. She had not expected otherwise. The Court ruled that just because someone manages to live within his or her income doesn’t mean that that the income fulfils all that person’s ‘needs’ or ‘requirements’. Secondly, the district judge hadn’t considered the effect of his order would have on Mrs Ilott’s state benefits. The information wasn’t provided to the court, but he shouldn’t have proceeded without it. The £50,000 award led to a loss in benefits that left Mrs Ilott worse off.
The Court of Appeal concluded that the applicant’s needs were not met. The court awarded her £143,000 to buy her property, together with a reasonable sum for acquiring a property. The court also gave her the option to receive a capital sum of £20,000 from the estate to supplement her benefits. The three charities involved took the case to the Supreme Court. Lord Hughes, Lady Hale, Lord Kerr and Lord Wilson said the process suggested by the Court of Appeal wasn’t warranted by the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975.
The Act, they ruled, does not require a judge to fix a hypothetical standard of reasonable provision, and then increase or decrease it, according to variable factors. The second suggested error that the Court of Appeal said the district judge made – that the award was of little or no value to Mrs Illot – was also unjustified. The Supreme Court unanimously agreed to the charities’ appeal against the 2015 ruling. Professor King said charities would be pleased with the judgment as it took into account their needs and that testators’ wishes should be taken seriously. The Supreme Court’s comments had included raising the point that charities rely on legacies. Adult children had to be entitled to maintenance, but this didn’t necessarily extend to financial provision for them.