Tuesday, 21 Mar 2023

Ex-ambassador wins High Court fight against ‘surrogate daughter’

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A multimillionaire retired ambassador has won a High Court fight with the “surrogate daughter” who moved into his £15million stately home and refused to leave. David Gladstone, 87, went to war with lawyer Leigh White after she moved into his Grade-I listed family mansion in Buckinghamshire following the death of his son in 2017.

Ms White, 56, had been a close family friend, but when they fell out and he eventually asked her to leave, she claimed a right to stay as “successor and heiress” to his family fortune. She claimed the country pile, Wotton House, near Aylesbury, had been promised to her by Mr Gladstone as his “surrogate daughter” and that he must – while frail and in old age – simply have forgotten.

In October, the case reached court when Mr Gladstone – still in Cumbria after moving there to shield from Covid with his wife – sued to get her out, saying he is “desperate” to spend his final years at home.

She countersued, claiming it would be wrong for him to go back on promises that she would inherit, as she sacrificed her career to look after Mr Gladstone, first wife April and the house on the basis that Wotton would be hers.

But on Friday Mr Justice Trower rejected Mrs White’s case, ordering her to leave Wotton so Mr Gladstone can move back home. The judge found that Mr Gladstone had made no promise that Mrs White would inherit and had merely wanted her to take a lead in running the house because he trusted her to do so.

He ordered her to give up possession of Wotton “forthwith.” Mr Gladstone is a former High Commissioner to Sri Lanka and the man who opened the first British embassy in Ukraine.

Wotton House was originally bought by his first wife April’s family in the 1950s, but he inherited it following her death in 2014. Dating from 1714, it boasts extensive grounds which were modelled by the celebrated landscape architect, Capability Brown, who laid down pleasure gardens and two lakes.

The sprawling house was heavily rebuilt by leading architect Sir John Soane in the early 19th century following a major fire, and several temples and pavilions were also created in the gardens. During a two-week trial, Mr Justice Trower heard that David and April Gladstone had devoted much of their time to Wotton, restoring historic features and much of the original landscaping of the grounds.

They met Mrs White 30 years ago and their friendship bloomed due to a shared passion for Sri Lanka, classical music and theatre, and she became part of their inner circle, managing Wotton as Mr Gladstone got older.

But Mrs White claimed that, from 2007 onwards, Mr Gladstone – who she said treated her as a “surrogate daughter” – repeatedly assured her that Wotton House and two other properties making up his £20million estate would go to her when he died.

Her barrister, Penelope Reed KC, highlighted a lunch at the National Liberal Club (NLC) that year “when David asked her if she would take on Wotton when he and April died, which she reasonably understood as meaning she would inherit it.”

And she claimed that “promise” was later confirmed over dinner at a Thai restaurant in Islington in October 2011, which Mr Gladstone even logged in his diary, noting: “there is now no going back, Wotton is promised to Leigh”.

She had enjoyed a “close personal bond of love and affection” with the Gladstones and Mr Gladstone himself had referred to them as being “mum and dad” in an email to Mrs White, she said. It was only after he moved north to Cumbria to shield with his new wife, Mary, during the first Covid lockdown that the relationship and Mr Gladstone’s inheritance plans changed unexpectedly, she claimed.

He demanded she move out so he could move back in with Mary and announced he had written a new will, placing his estate into a discretionary trust for the benefit of his family – and leaving nothing and no role for Mrs White. The move resulted in Mr Gladstone suing Mrs White for possession of the house, with her countersuing, claiming she has a right to it because of his earlier inheritance promises.

Her barrister, Ms Reed, said it would be “unconscionable” for Mr Gladstone to go back on the assurances he made to her over the years that she would be his main heiress and get his estate when he dies.

Ms Reed said: “David promised Leigh Wotton, she then spent her time assisting him with the running of Wotton, including moving into the property and caring for and supporting him and his family. It is submitted that having made those promises to Leigh over a long period of time and she having arranged her life on the basis of them, it is very clearly unconscionable for David to resile from them.”

But for Mr Gladstone, Tracey Angus KC denied that there had ever been a promise that Ms White would inherit Wotton herself and, as a lawyer, she must have understood that he intended for it to go into trust “for many generations.”

The alleged promise that she would “take on” Wotton at the Liberal Club “could not reasonably have been interpreted” as a promise that she would inherit Wotton outright or have any right to live there before his death, said the barrister. Having moved in, Ms White had gradually assumed a tighter hold over Mr Gladstone’s property and financial affairs, said the KC, adding that this pattern increased after he went to shield from Covid in March 2020.

Faced with an increasing deadlock after his move to Cumbria, he had decided to cut her out altogether, removing her as trustee or beneficiary of the estate trust and asking her to get out.

“He desperately wants to spend what remains of his life at Wotton,” said his barrister. She added: “Regardless of who is at fault for this, David cannot return to Wotton whilst Ms White is there and it is unfair to exclude him from his home.”

Ruling on Friday, the judge rejected Mrs White’s claim that she had been promised Wotton or that she was justified in positioning the shape of her life going forward in reliance on any pledge.

He said: “So far as what Leigh was told at the NLC lunch, I am satisfied that she was entitled to conclude that David wanted her to have an important role in Wotton going forward, all the more so after he and April had died. But even if she had convinced herself that what he had said was that come what may she would be the appointed ‘heiress,’ the context in which this assurance was given was not one on which, in my judgment, it was reasonable for her to place substantial reliance in ordering her affairs going forward.”

“From David’s point of view, he was simply expressing a statement of present intent that he would like Leigh to have a significant managerial role in the running of Wotton after his death,” said the judge. “This was a role which might even manifest itself in taking on what was referred to by some of the witnesses as that of a ‘chatelaine’, but it fell far short of a promise that she would be its absolute owner.

“He was very fond of her, but it is also plain that he valued her practical and legal abilities, on which he continued to place considerable reliance, and it was that which was the driver behind the way in which he expressed his intentions and hopes that she would succeed in managing the affairs of Wotton after his death.”

Even if she had positioned her life based on what she was told by Mr Gladstone, it would have been “unreasonable” for her to have done so, given they were “informal conversations,” the judge continued.

He said: “I have therefore concluded that David is entitled to an order for possession of Wotton. In the end, it was accepted at the trial that there was no defence to this claim as David is still alive. In the light of that concession, possession should be given up forthwith. I have also concluded that Leigh is not entitled to any of the other relief sought in her counterclaim.

“She has failed to establish the estoppel she relies on and she has no equity in Wotton as claimed.”

As well as the fight over the future of the house, Mr Gladstone also sued for the return of about £800,000 in bonds which he transferred to Mrs White.

He said the transfers were made at a time when she was in the “ascendancy over him” due to his old age and mental and physical frailty. The judge concluded that “the assignments of the bonds were procured by Leigh’s undue influence and must be set aside.”

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