It may be difficult for wills practitioners to conceive, but a solicitor who charged a very wealthy client a mere £140+VAT to write his will compared the quality of service he provided as akin to the quality of clothes at Primark.
It’s little surprise that the job was not done to a reasonable standard and that legal action followed1. The case lasted three weeks and involved 49 witnesses. In his ruling, the judge soundly criticised solicitor Daniel Curnock, not only for the standard of service but also because he proved an “unsatisfactory” witness in the case.
What’s the background?
The testator died in 2019 leaving four children and a £100m fortune. He had built his business and property investment empire from nothing.
In 2014, Curnock then of Christopher Green McCarrahers Solicitors in Southampton, said he could write the testator a new will at a fixed fee of £140 + VAT, but at that price he would be unable to provide a first class service – comparing the quality of service to that of Primark clothes. The judge said he also used that as his excuse for not attending the execution of the will.
The proceedings against the estate arose in relation to that will. The claimant (the testator’s youngest daughter) asked the court to pronounce in favour of the 2014 will in solemn form. She stood to inherit 80% of the estate under that will.
The defendants resisted, arguing that it was invalid on grounds of undue influence and want of knowledge and approval. Instead, the court was asked to propound an earlier will made in 2012 (also by Curnock) under which the estate would be split more fairly between family members. Under the 2012 will, the claimant would receive a relatively low 26.67% of the estate.
The court concluded that the claimant had not demonstrated on balance that her father knew and approved of the contents of the 2014 will – in fact, she had probably “engineered” the will to ensure she would get the bulk of the estate. The court therefore pronounced the earlier will from 2012 in solemn form.
Conduct of the file
The judge, Michael Green J, described Curnock’s conduct at the time the 2014 was made will as “extraordinary”. The solicitor had, for instance, annotated the original 2012 will with deletions and amendments while it was still the testator’s valid will. The judge did not accept the explanation that this was done at a meeting, not least because they were inconsistent with his attendance note.
Green J called him “a most unsatisfactory witness” during proceedings and referred to his “annoying habit” of buying time by insisting on reading the entirety of each document to which he was referred. He also persistently tried to avoid answering questions by asking questions back.
He said: “It is actually quite distressing to say that I cannot safely rely on the evidence from an officer of the court but I do not think he was giving truthful evidence about how he took instructions, prepared the 2014 will and the relationship between him and the claimant.”
The solicitor’s relationship with the claimant
It was clearly apparent that Curnock had some sort of relationship with the claimant – the primary beneficiary of the 2014 will - back in 2013 that they had not fully admitted to. This was evident from, eg various text messages.
Green J concluded that Curnock had not been telling the truth and that he and the claimant had attempted to conceal the full extent of their relationship.
He also warned that there could be serious consequences for Curnock as a result of his findings.
Practitioners should not need reminding of their regulatory obligations to carry out a service to a high professional standard. However, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has previously highlighted what it described at common quality failures’ identified in the preparation of wills, including inadequacy and legality.
Suitable quality controls must be put in place to mitigate the risks of professional negligence and or disputes arising after the client dies. This case is a salutary reminder of the risks of failing to carry out a wills service with due diligence in accordance with regulatory requirements.