Amidst an ageing population, the role of judges in protecting the weak, vulnerable and infirm is of ever increasing importance. In one case that proves the point, the High Court stepped in to set aside land transfers made by an elderly farmer with dementia in the years before his death.
The farmer was well into his 80s when he gave his land holdings to two of his sons. The gifts, which were expressed to reflect natural love and affection, included the home that he occupied with his wife. She was granted no right to remain living there or to financial support from the sons. As a result, she was left with nothing when her husband died.
The widow launched proceedings and, in setting aside the gifts, the Court ruled that the farmer lacked the mental capacity required to validly enter into the transactions. There was evidence that, by the time of the transfers, he had for some years been suffering from confusion and forgetfulness, to the extent that he sometimes failed to recognise members of his family.
The sons argued that their father had given them the land of his own free will, and the Court did reject arguments that they had brought undue influence to bear upon him. Had that been established, it would have been grounds in itself for voiding the gifts.
However, it noted that the transfers were obviously and manifestly to the disadvantage of the farmer and particularly his widow. No explanation had been offered as to why he would have done such a thing to his wife.
The widow had sadly died during the course of the proceedings, but the ruling meant that the land would revert to the farmer's estate. In a postscript to his decision, the judge noted that the age profile in society is changing and urged particular caution on solicitors when dealing with gifts made by the elderly.