An Oxford don has won an Appeal Court fight over his doctor mother’s £1.25m home, after she fell for a female lawyer half her age and disinherited him.
Professor Christopher Gosden, director of the Institute of Archaeology at Oxford University, said his loving mother Dr Jean Weddell, a distinguished physician, had decided in 2003 to leave him her Edwardian London home, but instead he was left with nothing when she died in 2013.
That was after she fell in love with Wendy Cook, a barrister 37 years her junior, with whom Dr Weddell formed a civil partnership in 2007, at the age of 78.
Professor Christopher Godsen, left, and his wife Professor Jane Kaye, right, took legal action against a firm of solicitors who failed to register an interest in the home of Professor Godsen’s mother Dr Jean Weddell who agreed to leave the Kensington property to her son in the event of her death
Dr Weddell established a trust for her son and her wife in 2003 to minimise the amount of inheritance tax they would have to pay in the event of her death. However, Dr Weddell altered her will after embarking on a civil partnership with barrister Wendy Wood in 2007. Prof Goodsen claimed his solicitor should have put a note on the deeds of the property at the Land Registry which would have prevented the disposal of the home without his knowledge
By the time she died in 2013, she had made a new will, leaving nothing to her son, but leaving much of her estate to her new partner.
The professor later discovered that his mother’s home – now worth £1.25m – had been sold without his knowledge in 2010, and that by the time she died three years later, there was just £5,000 left in her estate.
Professor Gosden launched a court fight, claiming that a trust scheme his mother set up in 2003 to minimise inheritance tax ought to have given him and his fellow-professor wife Jane Kaye the right to veto the sale of the house.
He said he would never have let the house be sold, given that Ms Cook – whom he regarded with ‘distrust’ – would be ‘the ultimate beneficiary of the proceeds of sale’ after his mother’s death, following the new will earlier that year.
The couple sued the firm of solicitors responsible for drawing up the trust agreement, Halliwell Landau, claiming they bungled by leaving a loophole which allowed the house in Denny Crescent, Kennington, to be sold without their knowledge.
They were negligent in failing to register a restriction on the house with the Land Registry, which would have kept Prof Gosden and his wife in control of whether or not it was sold, he argued.
In February last year, Judge Mark Pelling found that the solicitors’ firm had indeed been negligent in failing to register the restriction, but dismissed the claim against them.
The High Court originally ruled that Prof Godsen’s solicitors had not breached their duty of care because their mistake had not cost them any money . The High Court suggested Prof Godsen would have accepted any decision to sell the property
He ruled that Prof Gosden had not established that the solicitors’ error had caused him any loss, finding that even had he and his wife known the sale of the house was planned, Dr Weddell would have persuaded them to agree to it being sold and the proceeds put into her estate.
But today, three Court of Appeal judges reversed that ruling, handing victory to Prof Gosden and his wife.
Lord Justice Patten said the judge had been wrong to conclude that Prof Gosden and Prof Kaye would have let the house be sold in circumstances where they both had ‘concern…about Dr Weddell’s capacity and what they regarded as the malign influence of Ms Cook in the arrangement of Dr Weddell’s affairs’.
‘What they lost through the solicitor’s negligence was the power to veto the sale,’ he said.
‘Had Halliwell Landau registered the restriction in accordance with the duty of care which they owed Prof Gosden and his wife, no sale could have taken place without their consent.’
Dr Weddell, who died in 2013 aged 84, lived a colourful life, enrolling as one of the first female students at St Thomas’ Hospital Medical School in 1947.
She enjoyed a glittering international career, helping set up a children’s hospital in Korea following the end of the war there in the 1950s, then spending time in Jordan, treating youngsters with tuberculosis.
She went on to do research work in the field of controlling epidemics, carried out groundbreaking work with stroke patients and toured the world stage as a lecturer for the World Health Organisation.
Dr Weddell, who was also a dedicated church bell ringer, gave birth to her son Christopher just before she left for Korea, but gave him up for adoption.
He was taken to live in Australia by his new family, but returned to the UK and re-established a ‘strong and happy relationship with his mother’ in 1987.
Professor Gosden went on to become one of the UK’s top archaeologists.
He has served as curator of the Pitt-Rivers Museum, and is currently Professor of European Archaeology at Oxford University and a trustee of the British Museum.
Dr Weddell regarded her son with ‘affection and generosity’ and had left him and his wife her whole estate by a will she made in 2003, said the judge.
At the same time, she set up an ‘estate protection scheme,’ putting her London home into a trust which promised to deliver the property, or the money from its sale, into the hands of her son and his family in a tax efficient manner.
Professor Gosden and Professor Kaye were appointed trustees of the scheme, along with Ms Weddell.
But in February 2010, she made the new will, leaving much of her wealth to Wendy Cook.
Later that year the disputed house was sold for £710,000.
Lord Justice Patten said Prof Gosden made it clear that the house had been a ‘much-loved family home’ which his mother was anxious to pass on to her family.
‘He said he believed it was Ms Cook, rather than his mother, who chose to sell the property and many of his answers indicate a deep distrust of Ms Cook and her motives,’ he continued.
‘(Since) Dr Weddell had gone to live with Ms Cook on the Isle of Wight, there had been the significant diminution of contact between Prof Gosden and his mother…and a corresponding concern on the part of Prof Gosden and Prof Kaye about Dr Weddell’s capacity and what they regarded as the malign influence of Ms Cook in the arrangement of Dr Weddell’s affairs.’
He said Judge Pelling had accepted that Prof Gosden and Prof Kaye had those concerns and that it was ‘difficult to see upon what evidence the judge could properly have based his conclusion that they would have consented to the sale’.
‘The only realistic and proper conclusion available to the judge was that they would not have consented to the sale,’ he said.
‘The judge was therefore wrong in my view to have held that the solicitors’ negligence had not caused Prof Gosden and Prof Kaye any damage.’
Lord Justice Peter Jackson and Lady Justice Asplin agreed with the ruling. The court also ruled that Prof Gosden and his wife had not been too late in bringing their claim.
There was no claim against Ms Cook, who was not a party to the action.