The four-year battle over the inheritance of a 287-acre parcel of farming land in North Yorkshire moved to the Court of Appeal this week. The land comprises Potto Carr Farm near Northallerton and is valued at £2.35m.
The former owner of the farm, Joyce Gill, died in August 2006, aged 82. Thirteen years before her death, she and husband John Gill -- who died in 1999 -- signed "mirror wills", which stated that if one of them died the farm and all their savings would pass to the other; and upon the death of the last surviving spouse, the farm would go to the RSPCA.
As a consequence of this arrangement, the couple's daughter Dr Christine Gill received nothing.
Dr Gill challenged her mother's will, however, and last autumn Leeds High Court ruled in her favour. The court said her "bullying" and "domineering" father had coerced her mother into changing her will to leave the farm to the RSPCA.
After losing the case the charity faced a legal bill of £1.3m but it decided to appeal, saying it had a duty to fight the ruling "to uphold the wishes of those that choose to bequeath it a legacy".
The RSPCA is being backed by a number of other charities in fighting the decision. The RSPB, Great Ormond Street Hospital and the Charities Aid Foundation were among 11 charities that signed a joint statement prior to the appeal hearing that read:
"This case has been troubling for many charities and we are very concerned at its possible implication for the charity sector.
"It is unacceptable for charity trustees to be caught between the legal duty to secure assets to which the charity is entitled and the threat of huge legal costs being imposed for attempting to do so.
"It is crucial that this matter is finally settled, one way or another, so that charities can be more certain of the legal landscape and can plan accordingly."
The RSPCA added that it felt "strongly" that Ms Gill's intentions in her will were expressed "very clearly".
"The Gills had already provided substantially for their daughter during their lifetime, which included a large contribution towards the purchase of the farmhouse in which she now lives," it said.
"The RSPCA carefully considered the merits of its action before taking the decision to defend Dr Gill's claims and subsequently to appeal in order to honour Ms Gill's wishes.
"Whilst the charity appreciates Dr Gill's disappointment in failing to receive her mother's estate, the law in this country is clear; individuals have the testamentary freedom to leave their estate to whoever they wish.
"The RSPCA considers that it has an obligation to seek to uphold the wishes of those that choose to bequeath it a legacy. As a charitable organisation it is restricted by charity law in its ability to simply disclaim the legacy Mrs Gill left."
Moreover, the charity argues that if it had to surrender income every time a will were challenged "individuals would question the point of making a will benefiting a charity and it would have a direct effect on its ability to carry out its charitable work".
Dr Gill disputes this. She says she received assurances from her parents that she would inherit the farm. She also argues that her mother suffered severe agoraphobia and anxiety, and had an "avowed dislike" of the RSPCA.
Her father, meanwhile, probably sought to disinherit her because he did not like her half-Polish husband, she says, and also had a "bee in his bonnet" about not having a male heir at the time he drew up the will.
The appeal continues.