The Court of Appeal overturned the decision of the judge at first instance (see Hughes v Pritchard and others  EWHC 1580 (Ch)), that declared the Will of the Deceased invalid for lack of capacity, and remitted the issue of proprietary estoppel back to the High Court.
The judge at first instance dismissed the claim of the Appellant, Gareth Hughes, for a grant of probate in solemn form in relation to the last Will of Evan Richard Hughes (the ‘Deceased’) dated 7 July 2016 on the ground that it was invalid due to the Deceased’s lack of testamentary capacity - the Deceased’s previous Will dated 7 August 2005 was admitted to probate.
The judge made the conclusion despite the Will-drafting solicitor and the GP who assessed him at the time of execution determining that he did have capacity, and despite a joint single expert’s conclusion to support that contention. The judge preferred the lay evidence of the Defendants and gave little weight to the evidence of the professionals involved.
The Court of Appeal was mindful that an appeal court should be extremely wary of overturning the trial judge's evaluation of the facts, and that it needed to be satisfied that the judge’s evaluation was outside the reasonable conclusions which he could have reached on the evidence before him or was one which, in other circumstances, a jury could not reasonably have arrived at.
The Court of Appeal’s decision is a rare example of an appellate court reversing the factual conclusions of the trial judge. It held that the trial judge had been wrong to downplay the importance of the evidence of the will drafting solicitor, who had “no issues whatsoever” with the Deceased’s testamentary capacity and had taken the precaution of obtaining an assessment of the Deceased’s capacity from a GP. That GP had seen the Deceased on multiple occasions and had been satisfied as to his capacity.
The conclusion of the Court of Appeal was that, had the trial judge given the appropriate weight to the evidence of the will drafting solicitor and the GP, then the conclusion that he reached that the Deceased did not have capacity, was not a conclusion which it was open to him to have made on the evidence.
Hughes v Pritchard provides a reminder that Wills prepared by solicitors who follow the Golden Rule are still open to challenge. This notwithstanding, the Court of Appeal noted the significance of the evidence of a GP by stating:
“Although the evidence of a general practitioner who assesses a testator is not definitive and the matter is for the court, it is clear that, in principle, the medical evidence of a practitioner who assesses capacity, having met a testator, should be given considerable weight when determining whether that testator had testamentary capacity.”
It is of vital importance when instructing a medical practitioner, to assess the capacity of a testator/testatrix, that they are provided with complete and comprehensive instructions. Included within the instructions should be the extent of changes to the testator’s/testatrix’s previous and proposed/last Wills, as that could impact their assessment of capacity.
Hughes v Pritchard also provides a reminder that, subject to the provisions of the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, as long as the test in Banks v Goodfellow is satisfied, “a testator is entitled to leave his estate as he thinks fit however unkind or unfair the dispositions may seem and does not have to provide reasons for it”.
You can read the judgment here.
If you have any queries in relation to the above or would like further information, please contact Sean Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org.