In a recent appeal, a probate claim has been returned to the High Court to reconsider whether a purported Will was a forgery. The case may well result in new guidance for courts dealing with potentially forged Wills and shines an interesting light on appealing judgments made during the pandemic generally.
Dean Brunt was believed to have died intestate in 2007. The family was divided as to what should happen to the family farming business and several years of protracted negotiations ensued. Ten years later, a Will was discovered. However, there were suspicious circumstances, including discrepancies with the signatures and a “contemporaneous” note of the Will signing that had clearly been written afterwards and added to a diary. A second Will, suffering from the same discrepancies, was discovered shortly before the case was heard.
Despite the issues with the Will and evidence from handwriting experts suggesting that the Will was a forgery, the High Court held that the Will was valid. The judge applied the usual approach to assessing the validity of the Will, which utilises reliable contemporaneous evidence as the starting point. On appeal, it was held that the judge incorrectly relied on the note of the Will signing, when that document could not be considered reliable. The judge also failed to properly take into account that one of the individuals who claimed to have witnessed the Will had a previous conviction for fraud.
The family members contesting the Will were successful, in part, in appealing the Court’s original decision because new evidence came to light. Media coverage of the case prompted friends of Mr Brunt to come forward and give evidence that he had said he had not made and never would make a Will. It also did not help the case of those defending the Wills that they claimed the second Will was discovered by a cat!
The appeal judgment also contained interesting comments on the way trial had been conducted due to the pandemic. What was originally scheduled to be an eight-day hearing was reduced to three and the bare minimum number of witnesses gave evidence. This meant that the court did not hear from the handwriting experts, who had strong evidence that the documents came into existence several years after they were claimed to have been made. It seems likely that similar evidential issues have occurred in other cases over the last year and there may be more cases to come.
For advice on making a valid Will or help with administering an estate please contact Hauke Harrack on 01604 463131 or Jennifer Koch on 01223 532737.