Re Studdert

WTLR Issue: Autumn 2020 #180

In the matter of: IN THE ESTATE OF MICHAEL JOHN DE CLARE STUDDERT (DECEASED)

1. PETER JAMES KING

2. DANIEL MARTIN VALENTINE (as personal representatives of the deceased)

V

1. JULIAN BEWICK

2. FERGUS WILLIAM MURISON

3. DANIEL MARTIN VALENTINE

4. CHRISTOPHER STAFFORD (as trustees of the EAC Educational Trust)

Analysis

The deceased died on 9 August 2017. The claimants were his personal representatives. The defendants were the trustees of the EAC Educational Trust, a charitable trust created by the deceased which was the residuary beneficiary under the deceased’s will.

The deceased was convicted in 1988 of possessing indecent images of children and in 1996 of attempting to import indecent images. In 2006 he pleaded guilty to 26 counts of possessing, making, and distributing indecent images of children. He had also had his licence to minister suspended and was prohibited from exercising any priestly function within the Church of England. The claimants applied to the court for directions since they were concerned that the estate might be subject to claims from survivors of historic abuse and needed guidance as to the steps they should take.

The difficulty was that, while there were indications that there might be claims for historic sexual abuse, there was little material with which the claimants could identify the survivors. No specific claims were initially intimated and the claimants were unaware of the identity of any possible claimant. While adverts had been placed in accordance with s27 Trustee Act 1925, the prospects of them being seen by victims were slight, and there was a risk that the claimants might not be protected by s27(2) Trustee Act 1925 because they might be taken to have had notice of any claims.

The court provided guidance over three separate hearings and handed down this judgment to make public the approach it had taken.

Held:

The obligation of the personal representatives was to ascertain the estate’s debts and liabilities, and to arrange for their payment in the due course of the administration. This was subject to s1(1) Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1934 which provides that, subject to other provisions, causes of action subsisting against a deceased person survive against his estate.

The starting point was that the creditors of the deceased were to be paid in priority to the beneficiaries, and that, if the administrators failed to fulfil their obligations, they might be personally liable. However, there were difficulties where there were unascertained creditors, in which case the only safe course was to apply to the court for directions.

The following statements of principle could be derived from the case law (Re Yorke (deceased) [1997] and National Westminster Bank plc v Lucas [2014] considered):

  1. (1) The duty placed on administrators to pay the debts and liabilities of the estate is not an absolute one.
  2. (2) The administrators only need to be required to take reasonable steps to locate and identify unascertained creditors. This is another way of saying that the court will take a practical view.
  3. (3) The steps the administrators will be required to take will vary depending on the circumstances. The nature of the liabilities and the degree of likelihood that they exist are but two factors that are likely to be important.
  4. (4) The court will balance the need to pay debts and liabilities with the reasonable expectation on the part of the beneficiaries that they will receive payment.

At the hearing on 9 January 2019, the court held that there was a real prospect that the deceased might have committed historic sexual assaults in England and Wales, and in Eastern Europe (and particularly Poland), which may have given rise to personal injury claims against the estate. The claimants were therefore directed to distribute the small pecuniary legacies in the will, give notice of the order to the pecuniary legatees, the police, and the Church of England, invite them to provide further information relating to potential historic sexual assaults, and to investigate the costs and practical benefits of setting up a website in the English and Polish languages as a facility to allow potential personal injury claimants to contact the claimants. The reason for approving payment of the pecuniary legacies was that the sums did not make a material difference to the estate’s ability to pay any assault victims, and because many of the legacies were to persons described as the deceased’s ‘Polish friends’ and payment might make it easier to obtain information helpful to the claimants.

At the hearing on 4 October 2019, the police and Church of England were directed to provide information about any historic assaults by the deceased unless it would be unlawful for them to do so. The claimants were also required to give notice of the order and of the deceased’s convictions to the schools at which he had worked with a request to provide any information they had about historic assaults. The claimants also were required to obtain expert evidence from a lawyer experienced in dealing with claims by survivors as to the benefits and costs of a website.

At the hearing on 6 April 2020, the court declared that it was satisfied that the deceased had committed historic sexual assaults in England and Wales and in Poland, Denmark, and Italy. An order was made directing the claimants not to distribute the net estate without further order to give a reasonable opportunity for claims to be made. The court did not determine how long the bar should remain in place, but stated that it was open to the defendants to apply for it to be lifted. In addition, the claimants were directed to set up dedicated websites in the English, Polish, Danish, and Italian languages; create entries on Twitter, Facebook and Wikipedia in those languages directing claimants toward the websites; and maintain those websites and entries until further orders. In addition, the claimants were given permission to seek further advice concerning a known victim of historic sexual abuse who had been identified, and were required to give notice of the order and the deceased’s criminal convictions to the Polish Embassy (since an investigation had begun in Poland) with an invitation to provide further information about the investigations that were carried out.

The court confirmed that a complete bar on distribution should not remain in place indefinitely. The claimants were required to provide a further report to the court in due course, after which further consideration would be given to the proper balance between the duty to identify creditors of the estate and to distribute in accordance with the will. Consideration might also be given to setting up a compensation scheme if warranted.

JUDGMENT CHIEF MASTER MARSH: [1] Michael John De Clare Studdert (Mr Studdert) died on 9 August 2017. Mr Studdert was single and had no immediate family. He was a paedophile. He left a will dated 3 February 2016 under which he appointed the partners of Nockolds Solicitors and the second claimant as his executors. A …
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Counsel Details

Mark Cunningham QC (Maitland Chambers, 7 Stone Buildings, Lincoln’s Inn, London, WC2A 3SZ, tel 020 7406 1200, email clerks@maitlandchambers.com), instructed by Nockolds Solicitors Limited (6 Market Square, Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire, CM23 3UZ, tel 01279 755777, email enquiries@nockolds.co.uk) for the claimants.

The defendants did not appear (other than the second defendant attended via Skype on 6 April 2020).

Cases Referenced

Legislation Referenced

  • Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1934, s1
  • Trustee Act 1925, s27