Oxford don gets £1m after winning battle over mother's £1.25m home

Oxford don is handed £1million payout following his victory in legal battle over his mother’s £1.25m home after she fell for female lawyer 37 years her junior and wrote him out of her will

  • Christopher Gosden said Dr Jean Weddell vowed to leave him her London home
  • He was left nothing when she died in 2013 after she fell in love with Wendy Cook
  • When she died in 2013, she made new will leaving much to her new partner Cook
  • He later found his mother’s £1.25million home had been sold without knowledge

An Oxford University don who sued after his mother fell for a female lawyer half her age and disinherited him has been handed a payout of almost £1million.

Archaeology Professor Christopher Gosden said Dr Jean Weddell had vowed in 2003 to leave him her London home, but he was left with nothing when she died in 2013.

It was after she fell in love with Wendy Cook, a barrister 37 years her junior, and formed a civil partnership in 2007 aged 78.

By the time she died in 2013, she had made a new will, handing nothing to her son, but leaving much of her estate to her new partner.

The professor later found out his mother’s £1.25million home had been sold without his knowledge in 2010, and by the time she died there was £5,000 left in her estate.

Professor Gosden launched a court fight, claiming a trust scheme his mother set up in 2003 to minimise inheritance tax ought to have given him and his wife Jane Kaye the right to veto the sale of the house.

He said he would never have let the house be sold, given that Ms Cook – whom he regarded with ‘distrust’ – would be ‘the ultimate beneficiary of the proceeds of sale’ after his mother’s death, following the new will earlier that year.

The couple sued the solicitors responsible for drawing up the trust agreement, Halliwell Landau, claiming they bungled by leaving a loophole which allowed the house in Denny Crescent, Kennington, to be sold without their knowledge.

Professor Christopher Godsen (left) and his wife Professor Jane Kaye (right) took legal action against a firm of solicitors who failed to register an interest in the home of Professor Godsen’s mother Dr Jean Weddell who agreed to leave the Kensington property to her son in the event of her death

They were negligent in failing to register a restriction on the house with the Land Registry, which would have kept Professor Gosden and his wife in control of whether or not it was sold, he argued.

Last January, after battling all the way up to the Court of Appeal, the couple won a ruling that the ‘negligence’ of the solicitors firm had led to them taking a financial hit.

Today Judge Mark Pelling QC, sitting at the High Court, ruled the firm must pay the eminent academic £985,299 in damages for their blunder.

Dr Weddell, who died in 2013 aged 84, lived a colourful life, enrolling as one of the first female students at St Thomas’ Hospital Medical School in 1947.

She enjoyed a glittering international career, helping set up a children’s hospital in Korea following the end of the war there in the 1950s, then spending time in Jordan, treating youngsters with tuberculosis.

Wendy Cook (right) during her civil partnership ceremony to Dr Jean Weddell (left) in 2007

She went on to do research work in the field of controlling epidemics, carried out groundbreaking work with stroke patients and toured the world stage as a lecturer for the World Health Organisation.

Dr Weddell, who was also a dedicated church bell ringer, gave birth to her son Christopher just before she left for Korea, but gave him up for adoption.

He was taken to live in Australia by his new family, but returned to the UK and re-established a ‘strong and happy relationship with his mother’ in 1987.

Professor Gosden went on to become one of the UK’s top archaeologists.

He has served as curator of the Pitt-Rivers Museum and is currently Professor of European Archaeology at Oxford University and a trustee of the British Museum.

Dr Weddell regarded her son with ‘affection and generosity’ and had left him and his wife her whole estate by a will she made in 2003, said the judge.

At the same time, she set up an ‘estate protection scheme,’ putting her house into a trust which promised to deliver the property, or the money from its sale, into the hands of her son and his family in a tax efficient manner.

Professor Gosden and Professor Kaye were appointed trustees of the scheme, along with Ms Weddell.

But in February 2010, she made the new will, leaving much of her wealth to Wendy Cook. Later that year, the house was sold for £710,000.

Lord Justice Patten in the appeal hearing said Professor Gosden made it clear the house had been a ‘much-loved family home’ which his mother was anxious to pass on to her family.

Prof Goodsen claimed his solicitor should have put a note on the deeds of the property (pictured, the £1.25million home in Kennington) at the Land Registry which would have prevented the disposal of the home without his knowledge

‘He said he believed it was Ms Cook, rather than his mother, who chose to sell the property and many of his answers indicate a deep distrust of Ms Cook and her motives.

‘[Since] Dr Weddell had gone to live with Ms Cook on the Isle of Wight, there had been the significant diminution of contact between Prof Gosden and his mother… and a corresponding concern on the part of Prof Gosden and Prof Kaye about Dr Weddell’s capacity and what they regarded as the malign influence of Ms Cook in the arrangement of Dr Weddell’s affairs,’ he added.

In February 2019, Judge Pelling found the solicitors’ firm had been negligent in failing to register the restriction on the sale of the house but dismissed the claim against them.

He ruled Professor Gosden had not established that the solicitors’ error had caused him any loss, finding even had he and his wife known the sale of the house was planned, Dr Weddell would have persuaded them to agree to it being sold and the proceeds put into her estate.

Overruling that finding, Lord Justice Patten said Judge Pelling had accepted Professor Gosden and Professor Kaye had those concerns and it was ‘difficult to see upon what evidence the judge could properly have based his conclusion that they would have consented to the sale’.

The High Court originally ruled Prof Godsen’s solicitors had not breached their duty of care because their mistake had not cost them any money. The High Court suggested Prof Godsen would have accepted any decision to sell the property

‘The only realistic and proper conclusion available to the judge was that they would not have consented to the sale,’ he said.

‘The judge was therefore wrong in my view to have held that the solicitors’ negligence had not caused Prof Gosden and Prof Kaye any damage.’

Lord Justice Patten said the judge had been wrong to conclude Professor Gosden and Professor Kaye would have let the house be sold in circumstances where they both had ‘concern… about Dr Weddell’s capacity and what they regarded as the malign influence of Ms Cook in the arrangement of Dr Weddell’s affairs.’

‘What they lost through the solicitor’s negligence was the power to veto the sale,’ he said.

‘Had Halliwell Landau registered the restriction in accordance with the duty of care which they owed Prof Gosden and his wife, no sale could have taken place without their consent.’

The case was sent back for Judge Pelling to decide how much Professor Gosden is due in damages with the solicitors firm contesting the matter for more than a year.

Today, the judge said during a brief court hearing that the lawyers’ firm will have to pay £985,299 in damages to Professor Gosden.

Halliwell Landau also face paying the costs for the action which lawyers today described as ‘substantial, well into six figures’.

A fully detailed judgement will be handed down by Judge Pelling at a later date. There was no claim against Ms Cook, who was not a party to the action.

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