The deceased, Cynthia Maria Lyons, passed away at the age of 83 in 2011. She died intestate, meaning that she did not leave a will. Her estate consisted of English and Jamaican assets.
Following her death there were two applications made for Grant of Letters of Administration. The competing applications were made by Andrene Kerr Robinson, who claimed to be a niece of the deceased and George Lyons and Jonathan Kerr, who were close relatives of the deceased.
Caveats were entered by both parties but due to an administrative error in February 2012 a Grant of Letters of Administration was issued to Andrene Kerr Robinson by the Probate Registry.
The Probate Registry demanded the return of the Grant but Andrene Kerr Robinson ignored the request. Consequently, George Lyons and Jonathan Kerr issued court proceedings for the revocation of the grant issued to Andrene Kerr Robinson. The application was made on the basis that she was not in fact related to the deceased at all and as such was not entitled to administer the estate. In doing so she had wrongly appropriated estate assets.
Andrene Kerr Robinson opposed the claim and instructed a firm of conveyancing lawyers, Blueprint Property Lawyers Limited. Blueprint was a firm of licensed conveyancers who were regulated and authorised to provide conveyancing services by the Council of Licensed Conveyancers . She paid Blueprint a sum that was in excess of £86,000 on account of her legal costs. This money was taken from the estate assets. Blueprint was not authorised to carry out contentious probate work or provide litigation services. The firm subsequently went into insolvent liquidation.
George Lyons and Jonathan Kerr issued a claim for Andrene Kerr Robinson to repay the monies paid to Blueprint by the estate from her personal funds. Andrene Kerr Robinson defended the claim on the basis that she had acted honestly and reasonably in the circumstances.
When the application came to court the judge declared that Andrene Kerr Robinson had breached the terms of an earlier injunction and ordered her to repay the money, amounting to more than £88,000 plus interest, to the estate from her personal funds.
Andrene Kerr Robinson and the estate were left without recourse against Blueprint because the firm had gone into insolvent liquidation without professional indemnity insurance that would cover the circumstances of the case. The trial judge noted that the Council of Licensed Conveyancers had apparently disclaimed liability to indemnify the Estate. This was on the basis that the losses it suffered took place in the course of probate and litigation work, which Blueprint was not authorised to carry out. And although one of the employees of Blueprint was a solicitor, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) also disclaimed liability for any losses suffered.
The case underlines the fact that Executors and Administrators can be held personally liable for legal costs in a contentious probate dispute. It is therefore important for Personal Representatives to ensure that they act honestly and reasonably at all times if they wish to avoid personal liability. It is worth bearing in mind the provisions of s 61 of Trustee Act 1925, as quoted by the trial judge, which state:
"If it appears to the court that a trustee ... is or may be personally liable for any breach of trust ... but has acted honestly and reasonably, and ought fairly to be excused for the breach of trust and for omitting to obtain the directions of the court in the matter in which he committed such breach, then the court may relieve him either wholly or partly from personal liability for the same."
As with so much in the world of contentious probate litigation, it is the conduct of the parties that is the paramount consideration. This case also serves as a reminder of how important it is for parties to an inheritance dispute to consult specialist contentious probate solicitors who are fully regulated and carry appropriate professional indemnity insurance.
You can read the full judgement by this link: http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2016/2137.html