Ministry of Justice statistics released this summer show that probate litigation is on the increase. The Court and Sentencing figures provide a detailed breakdown of the types of litigation fought in the High Court Chancery Division over the five years from 2006 to 2011. These show that the overall number of trust, wills and probate disputes reaching Court more than doubled from 2006 to 2011 (from 210 to 663). Year on year the number of cases increased from 556 in 2010. This trend is unusual in the current climate, and litigation in other areas decreased.
The breakdown of these figures showed that specific charity proceedings issued in the High Court remained stable throughout the period. Contentious probate actions including disputed wills and estoppel claims, many of which are likely to have involved charity parties, nearly doubled in number in the last 5 years (from 73 disputes brought in the Chancery Division in 2006, to 135 in 2011).
It seems likely that this trend is set to continue. Relatives may feel compelled to litigate over family property in times of economic hardship, where there have been substantial care home fees and as family structures become increasingly complex. Legacies may also become more and more important to charities if lifetime giving and government funding is reduced. Charities should be prepared. Risk can be minimised by encouraging major donors to have a professionally drafted Will drawn up and to talk to their families about their wishes.