A solicitor acting for claimants in court was forced to enter the witness box himself after a crucial witness changed his story.
According to a Leeds county court judgment, Philip Chapman was acting on behalf of two sons challenging the validity of a will, in which a third son had inherited the whole estate of their mother. The challenge was partly based on the ground that the will was improperly executed because the attesting two witnesses were not present when the will was signed.
The challenge relied on a statement in June 2016 from the executor and trustee of the will, but when he became a second defendant, he reversed his position.
The second defendant did not dispute the accuracy of Chapman’s telephone note, nor did he suggest the witness statement, sent to him by Chapman for signature, was inaccurate.
But 11 months after signing the statement, he revised his admission and said he was pressured by Chapman and the claimants. He insisted the will was indeed signed in the presence of two witnesses.
In Ram & Anor v Chauhan & Anor, His Honour Judge Saffman records that the solicitor faced the ‘highly unusual’ situation whereby he felt obliged to defend himself in the witness box against what he called groundless allegations.
The court consulted the solicitors code of practice before deciding Chapman could give evidence to rebut the second defendant’s allegations. Chapman was then cross-examined by the first defendant’s counsel.
Saffman said the upshot was that none of the communications between Chapman and the second defendant suggested any inappropriate pressure. Several letters and telephone chasers were involved, but the judge found no wrongdoing.
Saffman added: ‘Having heard the evidence of the second defendant and Mr Chapman… there is absolutely no evidence that Mr Chapman did anything improper to impel the second defendant to sign his first witness statement.’
He pronounced against the new will in favour of a 1997 will in which all three sons were beneficiaries.
In his civil litigation blog, Zenith Chambers barrister Gordon Exall said the case emphasised the need to keep clear written records. ‘The decision shows the importance of a ‘paper trail’ – a clear written record of what was said, with the witness being given the opportunity to read the statement and change it if necessary,’ said Exall. ‘It was probably not fundamental to the overall decision but undoubtedly assisted a solicitor put in a very difficult position.’