Supreme Court upholds first instance judgment of Richard Spearman QC

Rittson-Thomas and Ors v Oxfordshire County Council [2021] UKSC 13 concerned whether title to land, gifted to Oxfordshire County Council for use as a school under the School Sites Act 1841 reverted to the donor's estate when the school ceased to operate from the gifted land.

In 1914 and 1928, the donor conveyed land in Nettlebed to the Council as a site for an elementary school. The school expanded, and in the 1990s the Council decided it should relocate to a new building with improved facilities. The Council's plan was to sell the original site, after the move, to help pay for the costs of the new school premises.

In February 2006 the pupils moved to the new premises and, in September 2007, almost all of the original site was sold to a property developer for about £1.24m. Some of the donor's heirs brought a claim on the basis that (a) under the 1841 Act, any land donated for the establishment of a school reverted to the donor (or the donor's heirs) the moment that land ceased to be used for the purposes of the school, (b) that moment had arrived when the Council moved the pupils to the new premises in February 2006, and (c) the Council had been holding the original site on trust for the heirs when it was sold, and had to transfer the £1.24m over to them. The Council disagreed, arguing that it had always been the Council's intention to apply the proceeds of sale to the new premises and that, practically, the pupils needed to move before the original site was sold.

The claim was rejected at first instance by Richard Spearman QC, sitting as a Deputy Judge of the Chancery Division, but his decision was reversed by the Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court unanimously allowed the Council's further appeal. The Supreme Court referred at [24] to the "essential reasoning" of Richard Spearman QC "in what we consider to have been an excellent judgment" and concluded at [51] that "having regard to the purposes of the 1841 Act, Richard Spearman QC, at first instance, was correct to hold that, when section 14 is invoked, it is not necessary for the site to be sold before the school is moved to another site and closed on the site given by the grantor. Accordingly, we would allow this appeal".

The full judgment is here.