Category Archives: modern law

Priors, Promises and the Proper Observation of Old Books

[May 2024: I am currently revising and revamping this for a paper at the SLS conference in September, so there is more to come. Bet you can’t wait!)



As a Land Law teacher with a research interest in medieval legal history, I am always interested to see the two parts of my academic world coming together. Sometimes this can be frustrating, when lawyers, judges or others misrepresent the law of the past, or throw around ‘medieval’ and ‘feudal’ in an inaccurate fashion (see the sniffy references by Laws LJ to ‘medieval chains’ in Manchester Airport plc v Dutton [2000] QB 133, at 148A – while in fact describing actions which were around far later than  the medieval period – and the many references to rapacious practices with regard to ground rents and service charges on long leaseholds as ‘feudal’, which they aren’t). I also get exercised by the practice of relying on partial evidence about an old case, by citing a Year Book (medieval to ‘early early modern’ law report) without cross-referencing with the relevant plea roll (official record). Traditionally, doing a proper job of tracing the plea roll entries would have been massively time consuming, but, although it is still not easy, the advent of digitisation of many legal records (especially by the Anglo-American Legal Tradition project) has certainly speeded up the process.

Why bother? Well, it is always good to have as much information as possible about a case, if it is to be cited, and the record can fill in details of procedure and pleading not fully noted in reports. The main thing, though, is that law reports of the past, and especially the deep, medieval past, were not like modern law reports, and treating them as if they are just like something from modern reports, or indeed modern published judgments, is something of a distortion. We may find, for example, that what is relied upon as authority for a proposition of law was actually rather less definitive than would appear. The charm and frustration of early reports is that reporters were often more interested in noting lines of argument, and opinion, than in giving a clear ‘ratio’, (and frequently do not tell us what was the outcome of a case). If at all possible, then, it seems sensible to try to find both record and report, where these exist.

And so to the case I wanted to discuss. It is one which is frequently cited in texts on a tricksy part of Land Law: (freehold) covenants. I was first introduced to it as a second year undergraduate student, when our textbook referred to it in semi-anonymous terms as The Prior’s Case (1368). Clearly a proto-medieval-legal-historian even then, I wanted to know more, but nobody seemed to be able to tell me anything about it. I was given the strong steer that there was no need to ask questions. I did get as far as tracking it down in the printed Year Books, but struggled at that stage both with the black-letter printing and, of course, with the Law-French and peppering of Latin. I did learn something though – a truth about history and the doctrine of precedent in English law: people cite things they haven’t read; which they couldn’t have read. It was rather unsettling.

Now, years later, when I have got to grips with the old languages and scripts of the law, and learned a thing or two about modern lawyers and judges as well, I can take it all a bit further.  As ever with historical study, one notes that some things change, and others stay the same. I checked the Year Book report once more (with the aid of the extremely useful Seipp’s Abridgement) and then tracked down the plea roll entry relating to the case. You can see the YB report here {Seipp 1368.013; YB 42 Edw. III f. 3 pl. 14) and the plea roll entry is at CP 40/430 m. 60.

(I should say that I do not claim to be the first legal historian to have found this – there is some distinguished American scholarship on this, though somehow, English courts and lawyers seem to have been less interested in such academic study. There may be something to think about here for legal historians in England – is the fact that there is some … questionable … legal history in legal practice down to lawyers alone, or is there a certain exclusive insularity which has not exactly welcomed in the wider world? … One to ponder …)

Anyway, what do these tell us, and does it add to, or alter, the conventional modern English view of the case? Well, the first thing to note is that the names of the parties have become woefully garbled over the centuries. The printed YB version of events has it as Laurence Pakenham v. a prior (anonymous), and it is as Laurence, or Lawrence, Pakenham’s case that Coke cites it: Co. Litt. 385a. In fact, the plea roll shows that the case was not brought by a man with a surname tying him to Suffolk, but was, in fact brought by Laurence de Pabenham. This Laurence was a man with ties to Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire, Pabenham (now Pavenham) being in the former county. Now, a b and a k can be hard to distinguish in certain scripts, so some slippage here is not massively surprising. An additional garbling crept in, however, at some point, renaming the case ‘The Prior of Packenham’s Case’.[i] This might seem like a small thing, but its mixing up of plaintiff and defendant means that it  is not a version of the case name which would have been given by anyone who had actually gone and had a look at either the YB report, or the passage from Coke’s First Institute, which is usually cited with it. It is all rather indicative of (a) sloppiness; and (b) a casual attitude towards the truth. Alternative facts, anyone? I would certainly not be impressed by one of my students citing – and therefore claiming to have read – something which they clearly had not read. It reminds me a little of some of the nonsensical footnotes which give away the more inept Chat GPT user.

The plea roll tells us that the defendant prior and convent were from Canons Ashby (Essebi) in Northamptonshire. This was a house of Augustinian canons. The manor to which the covenant was attached was Hinwick),[ii] and Laurence claimed that the covenant was an old one – made with his great grandfather, Hugh, by the prior and convent of Canons Ashby back in the reign of Henry III (14 Henry III, which was a LONG time before – by indenture, formalities fans – wouldn’t it be great to find that, to understand the detail of the deal?). The covenant allegedly laid down that the canons should be singing three times per week in the chapel of Hinwick, in perpetuity. Laurence claimed, further, that, though they had massed away for almost a hundred years, they had not done it for twenty years, and he had not been able to get the prior and convent to keep the covenant. Just why the canons were holding out against keeping the bargain, who knows. I imagine it might be a bit of a pain. Laurence claimed 40 l damages for their failure, anyway.

All very interesting, and serving to highlight some of the changes between the PR and YB versions, but what about the past/present question – does the case, in either version, unequivocally stand for the proposition(s) for which it is now cited?

How is it now used? We can see a modern citation of The Prior’s Case in Bath Rugby v Greenwood and others [2021] EWCA Civ 1927,[iii] Nugee LJ, at 37, referred to it as an ‘example of noticeable antiquity’, and quoted Clauson J, in In Re Ballard’s Conveyance,[iv] who was, in turn, coming at The Prior’s Case through Coke in Spencer’s case (1585),[v] was a case which might bear further scrutiny in terms of its accuracy and relevance.  Anyway, the Spencer version of the point of the case is given as follows:

 The Prior’s case was one where the prior of a convent had covenanted that he and his convent would sing all week in the chapel of a manor for the lords of the manor. … a successor in title to the manor was able to enforce the covenant: “for the covenant is to do a thing which is annexed to the chapel, which is within the manor, and so annexed to the manor, as it is there said.

Nugee (38) thought that it was fairly obvious that the benefit would be annexed in this sort of case because it is ‘usually obvious which land such a covenant benefits … a covenant to sing for the lord of the manor in the chapel of the manor benefits the lord of the manor as owner of the manor,..’ There is probably scope for interrogating that sort of benefit, but let’s leave it at that. It is about passing of benefit of covenants, including positive covenants, by annexation to land/property rights.[vi] The Prior’s Case is also used as authority for the idea that there is no need for a servient tenement, in covenants, unlike easements.[vii]

The case itself was a little less clear cut. It featured quite a lot of argument as to whether Laurence had made a fatal error by claiming as the heir of Hugh. The thing was that there was another person who seemed to have a better claim to be Hugh’s heir – a young girl called Margaret, a minor, who was descended from Hugh via a senior branch to that from which Laurence sprang. (In the YB, Coke and ever thereafter, Margaret is written out of the story, which becomes one of an older and younger brother: interesting in its effacing of females, but ultimately not crucial to the legal argument). The prior’s side made a lot of this in argument. Laurence and his lawyers tried to get around this by basing his argument on his land rights: he was tenant in tail of the land to which the chantry was appurtenant (Hinwick), so, while Margaret might be ‘senior’ in terms of blood, he had the link via the land, and that meant that only he could in fact sue on this. Both YB and plea roll suggest that the court found the answer far from obvious, and it was repeatedly delayed, and adjourned.[viii] Coke seems to have skated over that aspect of things, and stated that there was a straightforward finding for Laurence, and so a decision that the covenant was annexed to the manor, so that it could be enforced by Laurence, as the person holding it.

The YB suggests that things were going in Laurence’s favour, but I have not yet turned up a final decision, and I am not sure that we can take it on trust from Coke that there was a definite decision that looks like annexation of the benefit to land (let alone to an estate) prevailing. As is often the case, Coke may have tidied things up rather, bringing an older legal world within the norms of his own day, and effectively making substantive rules out of a dispute about pleading. This passage rather sums up his approach:

Observe reader your old books, for they are the fountains out of which these resolutions issue, but perhaps by these differences the fountains themselves will be made more clear and profitable to those who will make use of them’.. [ix]

Even taking this as a definite judgment, it is very much something to which some context would need to be added and questions asked. There is at least potentially something of a mismatch between the idea of the attachment of a benefit to a manor and attaching it to land, or an ‘ordinary’ estate in land.

So, long story short, I am not sure The Prior’s Case quite stands for the straightforward proposition for which it tends to be used, and there is room for improvement in the way in which lawyers use old cases in new cases and practitioner texts. It strikes me as interesting that legal practice has created its own rewritten versions of the past, for use in modern law. Who would have thought that stereotypically pompous and conservative lawyers would actually be happy working in a post-truth environment? Aside from the questionable implied claims to scholarship and a basis in authority which are embodied in garbled citations of this case, there is something decidedly odd about purporting to respect precedent whilst not actually making an effort to look up records or reports. To the extent that all of this suggests an idea of historical scholarship, it is the historical scholarship of several generations ago, with its passing acquaintance with documentary sources and its reliance on the words of great men (Coke, Blackstone, others, but mostly Coke).



[DRAFT: DO NOT CITE WITHOUT PERMISSION; This is a ‘work in progress’ and the search for the end of the case goes on!]

Update, 7/12/2023

Two more things:

  1. the case is mentioned in Simpson. As Pakenham’s Case (with YB ref) and there is an explanation of the extension of the running of the benefit of covenants in land, beyond basic warranties, in this case.[i] It rather assumes – perhaps because of the date of the case, that this was about a post-1290 arrangement, but that is not what the plea roll implies.
  2. I am still waiting for a chance to check the plea rolls thoroughly, but there is a hint in a secondary work that the case was not in fact simply decided in favour of Laurence, as modern accounts assume. Now, I confess that I have not yet managed to get to the British Library to check out the manuscript cartulary (see how easy it is to admit that!), but it looks very much as if there was a settlement, with Laurence agreeing to pay the canons for their services: see G. Baker, History and Antiquities of the County of Northampton  2 vols (London, 1822), II, 10, citing Ashby Cartulary in possession of R Orlebar esq of Henwick co Bedford, fo. 204. This is MS Egerton 3033. I have now seen this (following a delay because of the difficulties at the library this year) and will bring this into the SLS paper.  

[i] A.W.B. Simpson, A History of Land Law, 2nd ed. (London 1986), 116-18.

Image: This, I think is the church in question. Note absence of singing canons. Proves my point, I think.


[i]  Preston & Newsom: Restrictive Covenants Affecting Freehold Land, eleventh edn (London: Sweet & Maxwell, 2020), Table of Cases and 1-023.

[ii] Inquisition Post Mortem of Laurence’s father, with the right lands. Inquisitions Post Mortem, Edward III, File 78 | British History Online (

[iii] This case involved rugby rather than singing masses. (I will hold back from making points about the similarity between religion and sport, sport as the modern Opium des Volkes, etc., though I may just be thinking it). Basic issue: did a covenant from 1922 against particular commercial uses mean that Bath Rugby (Club) could not develop the land in question as they wished, to which the answer would be yes, if the benefit of the covenant had been annexed to identifiable land.

Covenants superfans will note at once that, because of the date, there was no tangling with s. 78(1) LPA 1925 or the top fun which is the case of  Federated Homes Ltd v Mill Lodge Properties Ltd [1980] 1 WLR 594. If you know, you know.

In the end, the answer was that the land was not identified precisely enough, so the covenant did not work to stop the development.

[iv] [1937] 1 Ch 473 at 482.

[v] 5 Co Rep 17 b

NB – Spencer’s case is about the passing of the burden: Ps are original lessors, so not passing of benefit.

[vii] L. Turano, Intention, interpretation and the “mystery” of s. 79 of the Law of Property Act 1925’, Conv. 2000 Sep/Oct, 377-97, 379; Megarry, Robert, William Wade, Stuart Bridge, Elizabeth Cooke, and Martin Dixon. 2019. The Law of Real Property Ninth ed. London: Sweet & Maxwell, 31-014. ‘in an old case a Prior covenanted with the lord of the manor that he and his convent would sing divine service in the chapel of the manor. It was held that the lord’s successors in title could sue the Prior for non-performance.’

[ix] Co Rep at 17b, p 76.

Positively charged easements? A few thoughts on Gosling v Bradbury [2023] EWHC 199 (Ch)

TW: modern land law, not legal history …

Still with me? OK. This recent easements case is quite interesting (to those of us who like such things) in its treatment of a slightly involved easement.[i] It takes us into a bit of thinking about classification of easements as positive or negative, and into the issue of ancillary easements/rights. It also hints at a rather intriguing question with regard to accommodation and change from supply of something positive to the dominant land, to allowing the continuance of something potentially negative in effect.

The action took place in rural Worcestershire, near Droitwich. Simplifying the facts to their essentials, there were two adjacent pieces of land, Ford Farm (FF) and Rashwood Lodge (RL). It was claimed on behalf of RL that RL had an easement over FF, to obtain water from a borehole on FF, using an electrical pump, located in a barn on FF. The right to the water was fairly uncontroversial – there was an express grant of such a right, from 1982. The issue concerned the electrical pumping. Bradbury had interrupted the electricity supply to the pump, and this meant that the water was no longer pumped to RL. This only came to the attention of the occupant of RL, Ms Dawe, when her supply dried up, so that she could no longer water her horses. [Note to self, insert picture of sad horse here].

What possible argument did Bradbury of FF have for interrupting the electricity supply? Well, the argument made for this not being contrary to an easement in favour of RL was that, although the easement created in 1982 included a right to receive water from the borehole via pump and pipes, and, indeed, a right to go onto FF to check and maintain the equipment, it did not say anything about a right to a supply of electricity.

The judgments suggest that Bradbury, who had acquired FF recently, was well aware of the existence of an easement, but wanted to ‘take back control’ of the land, stop others coming onto it, and perhaps renegotiate the deal with RL so that it was more along the lines of a licence. If this was the plan, it did not work, however.

The right to have the pump powered by electricity, with wiring and apparatus on FF, was held to be a right ancillary to the explicit easement relating to the water received by means of the pump. There was an attempt to argue that, because an ancillary right could not impose a positive obligation on the servient owner,[ii] Bradbury could not be obliged to pay for and allow the supply of electricity, via apparatus on his land. Essentially, Bradbury was trying to say that the interruption of the current was not a positive interference with a genuine easement, but a cessation of positive action to support a claimed but invalid easement. This did not work. Zacaroli J ruled:

‘28. The ancillary right, as declared to exist in this case by the judge, is defined as the right to enjoy the passage of electricity across [FF], including, the right for [Bradbury] to arrange for the supply of electricity onto [FF], the right to make use of infrastructure already in situ on [FF] or to install their own infrastructure and apparatus, and associated rights of access. These impose no positive obligations on [Bradbury or successors in title], but merely require them to suffer things to be done on Ford Farm. They do not, as [counsel for Bradbury] contended, require the appellants to provide and maintain electric wiring and arrange a supply of electricity.’

I think it is quite interesting for easements in general, because it does show the room for disagreement around positivity and negativity. We tend to treat them as clear and distinct, but are they always? That construction of a requirement ‘to suffer things to be done’ is so beautifully liminal in its positioning between active and passive. Not to mention its biblical resonances. The whole situation was also made a little vaguer by the fact that RL and its occupants had not been asked to pay a share of the electricity for some time, though it was maintained that they would have been willing to pay. This non-demand/non-payment circumstance allowed Bradbury to suggest that FF was being burdened with the cost of the electricity, as well as having to ‘host’ the machinery, cables etc. That, of course, would tend to make it look a little more like a requirement for positive input on the part of the servient owner, and so less like a legitimate easement. If we think about Regency Villas, it would tend to take us into the territory that so concerned Lord Carnwath.

It is worth mentioning a couple of other unsuccessful lines of argument which were run on behalf of Bradbury. First of all, there was an attempt to suggest that the easement was to receive water, and that did not actually require the pump, or the electricity, because water would naturally flow from the borehole onto RL anyway. This was ruled out partly because it was an attempt to introduce a line of argument by the back door on appeal, contrary to general rules on appeals which I won’t discuss here, but mostly because the easement was actually in terms of receiving water through the pump and pipes on FF. The fact that it might be possible to get it in some other way was neither here nor there.  Secondly, there was a disallowed argument about the alleged unsafe condition of the water which was coming up from the borehole: apparently it was contaminated by arsenic. This was ruled out of order, again, because it was being brought in in a procedurally inappropriate manner. An interesting potential issue though: what if something which starts off as clearly ‘accommodating’ the dominant tenement turns nasty and damaging? Does ‘accommodation’ cease then, bringing down the whole easement? Not according to  Zacaroli J: even if this had been shown, he did not think that the easement ‘fell away’. It was not necessary to get into this in great detail (sadly for Land Law fans!) but he suggested, almost in passing, that it would be particularly unlikely to change our view of whether the easement ‘accommodated’ in these circumstances:

‘37. …I do not need to decide this point, but I doubt that this requirement is intended to impose a further qualitative or quantitative requirement that the right granted in the particular circumstances is one which does in fact provide a benefit. Moreover, if (which is not disputed) there was a benefit to Rashwood Lodge when the water easement was granted in 1982, it is difficult to see why, assuming there are now unacceptable levels of arsenic in the water – the validly granted easement will have for that reason fallen away, particularly if the problem with arsenic in the water is temporary or can be got around.’

Anyway, Bradbury was found to have been in the wrong, and to have interfered with an easement which did bind FF and its owners. And, just in case anyone was still fretting about positivity and negativity, and the fact that the outcome would be likely to be that Bradbury would have to take positive action, Zacaroli reassured us that:

  1. Although an easement does not impose positive obligations on the servient landowner, if the owner of the servient land is found to have wrongly interfered with a negative easement, it may be open to the Court to require it to take some positive action to undo that which it did via its wrongful interference.’


So there we are: positively crystal clear, and without a trace of arsenic; a case about boreholes which is not wholly boring.





[i] First instance: [2020] EWHC 3906 (Ch) DJ Shorthose.

[ii] True: ‘14. Any ancillary right must itself, however, be capable of subsisting as an easement: William Old International Limited v Arya [2009] EWHC 599 (Ch), per HHJ Pelling QC at §31.’

Image – general suggestion of electrical power: Photo by Frames For Your Heart on Unsplash

Judges, character and credibility

We legal historians have occasion to look at an array of different sorts of reports and records of cases, from the terse medieval plea rolls, via Year Books with their play-like format, through the slightly anarchic years of printed reports of varying standard and reliability, to the fuller, somewhat more easily understandable, reports of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There have been developments in recent years, however, which will one day need to be considered as part of a full history of the communication of legal decisions, via ‘official record’ and report. I am thinking of the huge expansion of material relating to cases which is now recorded and published in an easily accessible way. I think that it is arguable that the advent of the prepared essay style judgment, published online, has brought with it legal historically important changes,

One development which has impacted upon my professional world is the practice of publishing fuller and fuller judgments. This expansion is very noticeable in my main ‘day job’ legal subject, Land Law. I presume that, in the case of judges at lower levels in the hierarchy, the trend to longer judgments is prompted, at least in part, by a wish to ensure that, should a case be appealed, the lower-level judge would not be accused of having dealt with some point inadequately. Clearly, we are not the main consideration of judges, in their decisions to be more or less verbose, but it is something of a pain for those of us who want to encourage students to read cases (good luck with some of the massive proprietary estoppel ones in particular!).

It is not just length and the problems that presents for law professors and law students which is worthy of note, though: it is what is included. An issue I have mentioned before is that of judicial comment on witnesses, and the practice of judges including in written judgments and putting out into the public domain their views on the witnesses who appear before them. While judges in cases in which they sit alone, and in which there is a need to decide between different versions of the facts, must clearly make a decision as to which witnesses to believe, and should, in order to give a reasoned judgment, state which witnesses they regarded as more accurate, I am not convinced that it is necessary to go further into character assessment, publishing to the world comments on parties and non-party witnesses which might be hurtful, offensive or damaging to the individuals who have given evidence, and may well (I imagine) not have been expecting this sort of material to be disseminated.

Yesterday, I was reading a particularly interesting example of the genre: Gilpin v Legg [2017] EWHC 3220 (Ch). In this case, which concerned leases, licences and beach huts, the judge (HHJ Paul Matthews, sitting as a Judge of the High Court, in Bristol) commented in the following way, on various witnesses:

The father of a claimant was a ‘careful witness, who gave clear evidence. He accepted on occasion that his memory was at fault and accepted correction when it was shown that he was mistaken. He was doing his best to assist the court.’ (7)

A male claimant (a doctor) was ‘a slightly nervous but clear and straightforward witness. His memory appeared to be good. Once he got into his evidence he became more relaxed and comfortable. He was obviously truthful in the evidence he was giving.’ (8)

A female claimant was ‘a quiet and nervous witness, but rather prickly and apt to put up a barrage of words, often putting matters obliquely, and shying away from confrontation. Whilst I do not think that she told me any deliberate untruths, indeed was trying to help the court, I think she has convinced herself that she has been hard done by, that she is in the right, and so she interprets everything in that light.’ (9)

Another male claimant ‘gave clear and straightforward evidence, and was obviously trying to assist the court.’ (10)

A male defendant was ‘an intelligent and quick, even feisty, witness who saw the point of the question immediately, and gave clear evidence in response. Although he too believes strongly that he is in the right, and that does colour his evidence to some extent, he sometimes gave evidence against his own interest. On one occasion his tone became rather aggressive, perhaps through exasperation. I accept that he was otherwise trying to help the court and that his evidence was truthful.’ (11)

A male solicitor (the defendant’s litigation solicitor) ‘was a professional but slightly excitable, even enthusiastic witness.’ (12).

Another witness was ‘an elderly lady’. (13)

Though there was a need to express a view on the parties’ evidence, I am not sure that anyone needed the comments about a defendant’s ‘feistiness’ or why he might have adopted an ‘aggressive tone’ at some point’ or a claimant’s ‘prickliness’. I have to say that I would be fairly nervous – and quite possibly ‘prickly’ – if I had to speak in court, and knew that comments about me were going to be published in this way. And I am not sure that the ‘elderly’ or ‘excitable’ comments, in particular, were at all useful.

It does not seem to me that this sort of material helps anyone involved in modern legal practice, or that proper transparency and reasoning requires it. Of course, I am not just thinking about the present, and whether this is a good way of handling the assessment of credibility. There are legal history angles! The inclusion of this sort of material makes for an interesting comparison/contrast with some of the early reports of medieval common law cases, in which there are personal comments, but these relate to serjeants pleading before the Common Pleas or King’s Bench, rather than witnesses or parties. I do wonder what legal historians of the future will make of this sort of commentary. It does strike me that they might find it interesting to survey this sort of comment, cross-matching with characteristics of the commenting judge, and such matters as gender, age and professional status of the witnesses being subjected to these published assessments. They might well conclude that early 21st century judges were – in the formulaic incantation – ‘doing their best to assist’ legal historical scholarship.



Image – I am going with ‘prickly’ …. Photo by Klara Kulikova on Unsplash

No longer waiting for Ilott: preliminary thoughts


The Supreme Court heard Ilott v Blue Cross [2017] UKSC 17 before Christmas, and has now published its decision in this, one of the biggest cases on succession law in several years:

It was a case about a will, and, specifically about an adult daughter’s challenge to her mother’s determined efforts to leave her nothing of her (relatively modest) estate. The mother in question, Mrs Melita Jackson, had instead favoured a group of charities, and had left specific instructions that any attempt by her daughter, Heather Ilott, to upset this arrangement should be resisted. Heather did indeed mount a challenge, based on the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependents) Act 1975. This allows a range of relations and connections of a deceased person to claim reasonable financial provision from the estate, under certain circumstances.

The case had gone through several stages before this, with judges interpreting the Act, and their own task under it, in rather different ways. While most seemed content to accept that Heather Ilott should be given some sort of support from her mother’s estate, there were varying views as to what sort of an award she should receive – how much, and in what form, and what should it represent?

The (unanimous) Supreme Court decided to allow the appeal of the charities in this case, which, as far as Heather Ilott was concerned, meant that the provision she would be getting from the estate went back to £50,000, the sum fixed on by DJ Million, rather than the substantially higher figure which the Court of Appeal had decided upon.

In real life, Heather Ilott’s loss may not be as large as it appears from these bald facts: the SC judgment makes it apparent that some sort of arrangement has been made between the charities and Heather Ilott, presumably to soften the blow of this decrease in provision. From the point of view of the charities, this was clearly a difficult case to handle, since they risked looking extremely, well, uncharitable in trying to reduce the award made to a woman who was, clearly, in unfavourable financial circumstances. Nevertheless, it was clearly important to them not to concede ground in the area of challenges to money left to them by will, given that this is one of their major sources of income.

The decision itself, although it is in favour of the charities involved, and has been welcomed by the charity sector more generally, is relatively cautious. It is hedged about by the familiar reluctance to define terms, insistence that cases turn on their own facts, and comes complete with a Lady Hale critique of the current state of the law (and the failure of the Law Commission to deal with its problems). It was not to be expected that one case could deal with the genuine and longstanding tensions between a feeling that a person should be able to do as she wishes with her own property, a power extending even after death, and an instinct that there is an obligation to support and maintain particular close relations, if found ‘deserving’ (or at least ‘not undeserving’). (It is often suggested that ‘testamentary freedom’, unaffected by the latter obligation, had a relatively short life-span, but that is to ignore the centuries of exploitation of a variety of devices – particularly, but not only, those involving uses and trusts – to achieve control beyond death in the pattern of succession to land and personal property.) On top of that ancient tension, there are large issues of principle in relation to the relevance of tax and benefits considerations in these sorts of decision, deserving of more rounded and thorough consideration than would be possible on one individual set of circumstances. No doubt both the implications of Ilott itself and the wider issues will be considered in detail by succession law commentators in the coming months.

It has been a long drawn out case for those involved. For those of us watching it unfold, it has been interesting in many ways. The Supreme Court case before Christmas was the first televised SC case I have ever watched (and yes, I did watch it all the way through!), which was quite educational, if not especially dynamic. I have also found it instructive to look at the press coverage of the case. There is a lot of criticism of the deceased mother, Melita Jackson, who is characterised as spiteful and unreasonable. This draws upon comments by counsel, claimant and judges. It may or may not be fair – Mrs Jackson is not around to give her side of the story, or to object to the way in which she has been portrayed. The lack of an opportunity to answer back is inevitable in wills cases, but it can be rather uncomfortable: I find it rather disturbing seeing such one-sided contentions about deceased people (I found the airing of the alleged delusions of a woman with Alzheimer’s in Lloyd v Jones [2016] EWHC 1308 (Ch) particularly sad: I don’t think any of us would like to think that the general public would one day hear the claim that we had had delusions involving aliens, witches, dead people and being burgled or poisoned by Saddam Hussein, and were incontinent). It would also be interesting to examine the comments in Ilott and in comparable cases to see whether certain types of criticism are more likely to be applied to female as opposed to male testators: that’s going on my list of ‘one of these days’ projects. (At least one very gendered ‘below the line’ comment here sums up the case as entrenching ‘the human right to be a b***h’ – their stars, not mine: ).

It has been interesting to observe the Telegraph, and, in particular the Daily Mail, as they make very apparent the tensions noted above. Although Heather Ilott (despite having claimed various benefits and tax credits over many years, and thus not being the sort of person they usually favour) is generally portrayed in a fairly sympathetic light, there is also a clear concern with testamentary freedom (particularly when defence of testamentary freedom can be combined with a dig at ‘out of touch’ judges: ), and, when wider conclusions are drawn from the litigation, the reader tends to be cast in the role of testator, rather than badly-off IHA claiman (e.g. )

(If anyone wants to see a somewhat lower level of commentary, then the ‘below the line’ comments on the Express article on the case are a good (in the sense of predictable and depressing) place to start:

So – lots to think about: certainly in terms of immediate effects, but also in terms of attitudes revealed by the case and its coverage, and in terms of longer historical traditions of allowing and limiting control of property beyond death. No doubt I will be coming back to this.


GS 15/3/2017

Further coverage

A couple of days on, we get this in the Guardian: – a condemnation of charities for ‘interfering’ in contested wills. It may be right to say that there are problems with public trust of charities, but it seems harsh to describe the charities’ conduct here as ‘interfering’, since the initial active part was taken by the daughter of the deceased, asking for an alteration in the way in which the deceased’s estate should be shared out, and then asking for a larger share than was awarded at first instance. The article plays down the idea that the case has precedent value – clearly it is very important for charities to know where they stand on the vulnerability of wills which leave them money. It also ignores the fact that there does seem to have been some arrangement to limit the actual impact of the decision on the daughter in the case. It looks to me as if the charities were very well aware of the possible PR issue. Whatever one thinks about the weight which should be attached to testtamentary freedom, this does look like an issue which needed a thorough workout in court, in an effort to sort things out for the future. Whether Ilott has done that is, of course, a different matter…

18/3/ 2017 General message that we should be able to do what we like in our wills in Janet Street-Porter’s opinion piece: – though might have been an idea to read the judgment or summary a bit more carefully … suggestion here is that the will ‘stands’ and Heather Ilott gets nothing – the SC just put things back to DJ Million’s conclusion that Heather Ilott should get a lower sum than the CA awarded.

Registering objections (a rare foray into the modern world)

The government is asking for responses to its proposals for privatisation of the Land Registry:  Responses by 26th May.

This might not be an obviously exciting topic – the body which investigates and records land titles probably isn’t at the forefront of most people’s minds. Even land law students tend to yawn at the mention of land registration. But it is important – nobody who buys or sells a house can avoid involvement with the Land Registry. It is compulsory to make entries on the Register whenever land is sold, or dealt with in a variety of other significant ways.

The Land Registry does several important jobs which need to be done securely and competently. Accountability and transparency are also crucial. It is hard to believe that a move into the private sector would maintain standards in any of these areas, let alone improve them. There was considerable opposition to this move last time it was tried (under the Coalition) and the objections still apply.

The Land Registry is a (rare) publicly-owned body which does not lose money. Selling it off raises suspicions that the government is planning a quick sale for cosmetic purposes: ‘selling the family silver’ at a knock-down price, (see also the recent Royal Mail privatisation).

It also has to be said that it doesn’t look good to be doing this at a time of disquiet about hidden assets and offshore trusts and companies: whatever the talk about safeguards and maintaining access, would there really be any chance of getting the sort of information from a privatised Land Registry which allowed Private Eye to survey the proportion of English and Welsh property owned by offshore companies ( )?



Fraud and fungus: a fresh look at Rochefoucauld v Boustead [1897] 1 Ch. 196

An interesting and careful reappraisal of a case very well known to teachers and students of equity and trusts is provided in G. Allan, ‘Ceylon coffee, the Comtesse and the consignee: a historical reappraisal of Rochefoucauld v Boustead’, Journal of Legal History 36:1 (2015) 43-82. This goes some years into the background of the behaviour and transactions which culminated in this important case, dealing along the way with divorce, Roman-Dutch mortgage law and agricultural catastrophe. The Comtesse of the title emerges as an intriguing figure well worth literary treatment – and a follow-up film which could include scenes in Ceylon, Paris, Baden Baden and London. Winslet? Scott-Thomas? Clearly an Oscar-worthy role. It also provides some less-obviously dramatic but careful consideration of the categorisation of trusts, and thinking about equitable fraud, at the time of the case, which is worth taking into account when looking at it for the purposes of modern legal doctrine and practice.

‘Dickensian litigation’ – CA judgment in Gilks v Hodgson (2015)

Lawyers do like their Dickens references. The concept of ‘Dickensian litigation’ has reared its head in a recent easements case, Gilks v Hodgson (2015) which can be found at


Bean LJ’s allusion, no doubt, is to the preposterously and ruinously extended case of Jarndyce v Jarndyce from Bleak House. Both cases cost significantly more than the subject matter was worth – in the recent case, it has been suggested that costs might be £500,000 – so the characterisation of Gilks v Hodgson seems justified in part. In addition, there is the odd whimsical touch, such as the issue of whether or not some alpacas were being disturbed, which might well have appealed to Dickens. On the other hand, there are clear differences – the parties in Gilks do not sound as if they will be ruined by the case, however foolish it may seem, and it has not lasted anything like as long as Jarndyce.


The idea of ‘Dickensian’ litigation is perhaps more appropriate in long running and complex cases such as Hackney LBC v Sivanandan [2013] EWCA Civ 22, a discrimination case which had lasted at least 12 years, with many twists and turns (see Mummery LJ at 2). It is complexity – again probably alluding to Jarndyce – which is described as Dickensian in the multi party Jackson v Thakrar case ([2007] EWHC 271, per HHJ Peter Coulson QC).


Other Dickens works appear to be the subject of allusion in relation to the chaining of prisoners in hospital – Elias J, whose remarks are reported in Spinks v Secretary of State for the Home Office [2005] EWCA Civ. 295 (referring to A Tale of Two Cities crossed with A Christmas Carol?). Poverty and poor living conditions (which might be drawn from Oliver Twist, Our Mutual Friend, or elsewhere) are the ‘Dickensian’ factors in Murphy v Burrows [2004] EWHC 1900 (Ch) (per Richard Sheldon QC). Malicious and brutal schoolmasters (presumably Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby) are drawn to mind by the reference in R on the application of Williamson v Secretary of State for Education [2001] EWHC 960. Perhaps the most specific (relatively) recent reference is that by Peter Hayward in Burrals of Wisbech Ltd’s Applications [2004] RPC 14. Discussing the peculiarity of a stature which distinguishes between the right to inspect a document, and the right to copy it, he brings in the office Deputy Chaff-Wax(seen in A Poor Man’s Tale of a Patent). See also the specific reference by chapter to the ‘Dickensian’ administration of patents – Oliver LJ in Therm-a-Stor Ltd v Weatherseal Windows Ltd [1981] FSR 579, citing Little Dorrit c. 10.


To return to Gilks v Hodgson, while judges instinct might be for the ‘Dickensian’ reference, media interest has been so keen to note that the location of the dispute is close to the homes of various footballers and celebrities (in Cheshire) that perhaps it would be equally justified to invoke the world of Footballers’ Wives or Heat magazine. The judge at first instance called the parties’ relationship ‘toxic’, though, disappointingly, without any overt Britney Spears reference.

For media coverage, see, e.g.

GS 24/1/2015.

The Law Front Part II

By 1916 more cases dealt with facts which had arisen during war-time, including enemy ships taken as prize, and maritime law problems arising from the declaration of war while a cargo was in transit to Germany, how to treat a company with alien enemy shareholders (Daimler), the legal consequences of a merchant ship being sunk by enemy action, whether a sailor who had been imprisoned in Germany because his (merchant) ship was in a German port at the outbreak of war was entitled to wages during his imprisonment (Horlick v Beal [1916] 1 AC 486], and issues of nationality and internment (Ex parte Weber [1916] 1 AC 421). ‘Normal’ issues continued to dominate, however, including disputes about tax, local government, highway maintenance, labour law and land law. More diverting subject matter included the trade mark of a cat on gin, and whether it was infringed by a ‘puss in boots’ picture on another brand of gin (Boord v Bagotts, Hutton and Co. [1916] 1 AC 382. And there was time in Jones v Jones [1916] 2 AC 481 to decide that imputations of adultery to a schoolmaster, unless connected to his calling, did not amount to slander, unless special damage was shown. This case is notable for a thorough discussion of the history of defamation at common law, and, perhaps, for the judges’ inability to understand just how seriously an imputation of adultery would be taken in the decidedly un-metropolitan North Welsh location of the dispute.

To be continued …

The Law Front (Part I)

It is fairly difficult to miss the many commemorations for the centenary of the beginning of the First World War. We hear, of course, about the warfare itself, though there have also been insights into conditions in civilian life during the war period. What, though, of the law? What were the issues occupying Britain’s most prominent lawyers as the country faced the Great War?

The 1914 A.C. reports show that the House of Lords was dealing with many actions begun before the outbreak of war. By the 1915 volume, there were more cases which had been started (or had been referred to the HL) in the war period itself, but still many involved facts which had occurred prior to the outbreak of war. Matters considered included: Scots land law, charterparties and strikes, bankruptcy, trustees and ultra vires acts, wills and trusts, construction of contracts and measure of damages, rescission of contracts, conveyancing, the Poor Law and labour law.

Several cases involved miners – including an unsuccessful attempt by a miner to claim for false imprisonment by his employers in the mine (Herd v Weardale Steel Coal and Coke Co. [1915] AC 67) – reflecting the uneasy relationship between employees and mine owners, and the dangers of mining. There is also the litigation involving the nuisance of coal dust caused by the Pwllbach Colliery Co. ([1915] AC 634). Sailors and others involved with ships also feature quite frequently, and are not treated with great generosity in the case of industrial injury.

All this suggests an atmosphere of legal business as usual. While the matters discussed were generally important, they do seem somewhat disconnected from the world of fighting and coping with a major war. Going even further, an impression of extreme snobbish triviality is given by the (unsuccessful) continued pursuit of a claim to an extinct barony – with full legal historical argument about the nature of medieval parliaments – by one Captain Francis William Forester:  St John Peerage Case [1915] AC 282.

To be continued …