Judge: Henderson J
Citation:  EWHC 2405
Summary: In this case, Henderson J had to decide whether a Mr S had capacity to decide whether Chancery proceedings started in his name and on his behalf by his daughter and deputy, R, should be discontinued or compromised. By the proceedings, R sought declarations that gifts of money made by Mr S to a Mrs D (previously a legal secretary employed by his solicitors) in 2006 and 2007 totalling over £500,000 were procured by undue influence and should be set aside.
The facts of the case were relatively complex, but for present purposes the following matters were of importance to the decision:
Henderson J adopted the analysis of and approach to the MCA set down by Lewison J in Re P (Statutory Will)  Ch 33, but added a useful gloss on the terms of s.1(4) as follows:
“39… the fact that the decision is an unwise one does not, of itself, justify a conclusion of lack of capacity: see section 1(4). Just as a testator has always had the freedom (subject now to the constraints of the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975) to make testamentary dispositions which are unreasonable, foolish or contrary to generally accepted standards of morality, so too a person in his lifetime has the freedom to act in a manner which is (for example) unwise, capricious, or designed to spite his relations. The pages of English fiction and of the law reports alike bear ample testimony to the exercise of this basic human right, even if it is not one enshrined in so many words in the European Convention on Human Rights (although Articles 8, 9 and 10 are, of course, all relevant in this context).
40. The significance of section 1(4) must not, however, be exaggerated. The fact that a decision is unwise or foolish may not, without more, be treated as conclusive, but it remains in my judgment a relevant consideration for the court to take into account in considering whether the criteria of inability to make a decision for oneself in section 3(1) are satisfied. This will particularly be the case where there is a marked contrast between the unwise nature of the impugned decision and the person’s former attitude to the conduct of his affairs at a time when his capacity was not in question.”
He then turned to the question of the decision in issue, commenting as follows:
“43. At a superficial level, the nature of the decision may be simply stated. As I have already said more than once, it is whether to discontinue, or to continue to prosecute, the Chancery proceedings. But that decision cannot be taken, it seems to me, without at least a basic understanding of the nature of the claim, of the legal issues involved, and of the circumstances which have given rise to the claim. It would be an over-simplification to say that the claim is just a claim to set aside or reverse the gifts which Mr S made to Mrs D, because in the ordinary way a gift is irrevocable once it has been made and perfected by delivery or transfer of the relevant assets. If a gift is to be set aside or recovered, some vitiating factor such as fraud, misrepresentation or undue influence has to be established; and if the donor is to decide whether or not to pursue a claim, he needs to understand, at least in general terms, the nature of the vitiating factor upon which he may be able to rely, and to weigh up the arguments for and against pursuing the claim. Provided that the donor is equipped with this information, and provided that he understands it and takes it into account in reaching his decision, it will not matter if his decision is an imprudent one, or one which would fail to satisfy the “best interests” test in section 4. But if the donor is unable to assimilate, retain and evaluate the relevant information, he lacks the capacity to make the decision, however clearly he may articulate it.
44. The need for an understanding of the nature of the claim is particularly pronounced, in my view, where the claim is founded on a rebuttable presumption of undue influence, and where the relationship which arguably gave rise to the claim is still in existence. One would naturally not expect a lay person to have the same understanding as a lawyer of the principles expounded by the Court of Appeal in Allcard v Skinner (1887) 36 Ch D 145 and by the House of Lords in Royal Bank of Scotland Plc v Etridge (No.2)  UKHL 44,  2 AC 773. But if a donor is to decide whether or not to pursue such a claim, he must in my view understand (at least in the simple terms envisaged by section 3(2)):
(a) the nature and extent of the relationship of trust and confidence arguably reposed by him in the donee;
(b) the extent to which it may be said that the gifts cannot readily be accounted for by the ordinary motives of ordinary people in such a relationship; and
(c) the nature of the evidential burden resting on the donee to rebut any presumption of undue influence (traditionally described as proof that the gifts were made only after full, free and informed thought about their nature and consequences: see Hammond v Osborn  EWCA Civ 885,  WTLR 1125, at paragraphs  to  per Sir Martin Nourse).
45. It is only with the benefit of this minimum level of information that a donor in the position of Mr S can begin to reach a decision whether or not to pursue the claim, or (just as important) whether to attempt to settle it, and (if so) on what terms. Furthermore, where (as in the present case) the relationship with the donee which gave rise to the potential claim is apparently still subsisting, the court will in my judgment need to scrutinise with particular care whether the donor can stand back from the impugned transactions with sufficient detachment truly to understand the nature of the claim. By way of contrast, the necessary degree of understanding is likely to be far easier to establish where the donor was under an influence at the time of the gift (e.g. by a religious sect or guru) which has subsequently come to an end.”
Henderson J then conducted a detailed analysis of the evidence of the various experts. These included a Court appointed visitor, the terms of whose appointment are of some note:
“76. At a directions hearing on 20 October 2009 I ordered that a report should be prepared by a Special Visitor of the Court of Protection under section 49 of the 2005 Act, on the issues whether Mr S had capacity to decide whether the Chancery proceedings should be continued and whether he had capacity to enter into a compromise of the claim (and, if so, on what terms). Among my concerns in making this order were, first, that Mr S should be examined by an expert who was independent of the parties, and, secondly, that when the examination took place Mr S should be free from immediate influence by either Mrs D or R. The order therefore contained provisions that for 14 clear days before the examination took place Mrs D should not contact Mr S in any form or manner, and that during the same period R should not speak to him about the Chancery proceedings or any of the issues relating to them.”
Having conducted his analysis, he came to the clear conclusion that Mr S lacked the relevant capacity because he was unable to understand the information relevant to the decision, unable to retain it, and unable to use or weigh it as part of the process of making the decision. In the circumstances, and to his evident unhappiness (given the very clearly expressed wishes of Mr S that the proceedings not continue), he found himself compelled to a conclusion that R was entitled to continue to prosecute them.
Comment: This decision is, on one view, slightly odd, because it does not seem that any consideration was given by Henderson J as to whether continuing the proceedings was, in fact, in Mr S’s best interests given his very clearly stated wishes that they not continue and that his gifts to Mrs D stand untroubled. It may well be that, because the nature of the claim was such that the presumption of undue influence had been raised, Henderson J considered that it was in Mr S’s best interests for the proceedings to continue notwithstanding his views, but one would perhaps have expected an express statement of this in the judgment.
Henderson J’s comments in respect of s.1(4) are of considerable interest, because there has been little judicial commentary on this section. It is, however, somewhat difficult to avoid the conclusion that the weight that can be placed upon the apparent lack of wisdom of the decision must be very little if the terms of s.1(4) are to be respected.
The decision is of note for one further reason, namely as a case study in the need for experts properly to be instructed. It is clear from the judgment that Mrs D’s expert had been instructed in a very much less than satisfactory fashion, something which troubled the judge considerably (and was material in leading him to prefer the evidence of both R’s expert and that of the Court of Protection Visitor). The paragraphs from his judgment in which he sets out his concerns are worth repeating in full as they identify a series of ultimately costly errors:
“146. Before I leave the question of Mr S’s understanding of the relevant information, I need to say a little more about Professor Howard’s reports. In his second report, he addressed the question whether the Chancery proceedings should have been issued. As a preliminary comment, it should be noted that this is not quite the same as the question whether they should now be continued, although rather surprisingly Professor Howard seemed unable to appreciate the distinction between the two questions when it was put to him in cross-examination. In that report, he expressed the opinion that, although Mr S’s memory was extremely poor, if prompted “he quickly recognises the facts and issues involved”. Professor Howard went on to say that, with prompting, Mr S could recall the gifts and his reasons for making them, the fact that R was trying to recover the money, and the existence of the Chancery proceedings. However, it emerged from Mr Marshall’s skilful cross-examination that this opinion was based on only a superficial acquaintance with the case on the part of Professor Howard, which he readily acknowledged. I have already referred to the relevant passages in his cross-examination, and I will not repeat them. It is, in my judgment, a fair criticism to say that Professor Howard should not have expressed a clear opinion in these terms without also making clear the limited nature of his own understanding of the facts and issues, and the precise steps which he had taken to remind or inform Mr S about them. A related, and equally valid, criticism is that he failed to comply with the mandatory requirement in the Practice Direction to Part 15 of the Court of Protection Rules 2005 to include in his report “a statement setting out the substance of all facts and instructions given to [him] which are material to the opinions expressed in the report or upon which those opinions are based”. An acceptable alternative, as the Practice Direction makes clear, would have been to annex his instructions in so far as they were in writing. None of these elementary steps was taken, and the result (unintended I am sure, but nevertheless potentially very worrying) is that the report rests on a much flimsier foundation than a reading of it would naturally suggest. The rules are there for a good reason, and if they are not complied with a report, even from the most eminent of experts, is likely to lack the transparency and objectivity which the court rightly insists upon in expert evidence. I do not wish to be too critical, because the report appears to have been produced under some time pressure (although I must say it is not clear to me what the urgency was), and because Professor Howard and Hunters may have thought of it essentially as a supplement to the first report which he had produced in April 2008. Nevertheless, I have to say that there is substance in at least some of the severe criticisms of this report which Mr Marshall advanced in his closing submissions.
147. I am afraid that Professor Howard’s third and fourth reports are also open to some criticisms of a similar nature. I have already referred to the unsatisfactory way in which they were produced, apparently on the basis of oral instructions given at conferences with counsel, and without prior authority from the court. As before, there is only a most perfunctory statement of the nature of those instructions in the body of the reports, and no proper statement of the materials upon which they were based. The overall result of these deficiencies is that I have had to treat Professor Howard’s evidence with considerably more reserve than would normally be the case.”