Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Joan Edwards' intentions

The now notorious will of the late Miss Joan Edwards of Bristol can scarcely be described as a masterpiece of clear drafting.  It directed that the proceeds of her estate be given to "whichever government is in office at the time of my death for the government in their absolute discretion to use as they think fit."  This could, on the face of it, mean several things, but it does not unambiguously or uncomplicatedly mean any of them.  If she had intended the money simply to go into state coffers, why use such a complicated formulation?  If she intended it to be used for the party political purposes of the governing party (or parties), this could easily have been specified.  She might have been hoping that wise ministers would designate a particular charity or public purpose to receive the money in her memory: but again, this would not be difficult to spell out.

The executors, who are also the solicitors who helped Miss Edwards draw up this will, state that they received clarification from her about her true purposes and that she confirmed that she intended the money to go to the political party of government itself.  This seems fairly eccentric, but it is not completely implausible; perhaps she trusted in the good sense of the British people to decide for her which set of politicians was worthy of her cash.  If that was indeed the case - and good professional practice would of course require that this be noted down in writing - then the panicked decision by the Coalition partners to give the money to the Treasury (where it will make no discernible difference to the national debt) frustrates her intentions. 

Whatever view one takes of the drafting, there's clearly a difference between "the government" and "whichever government is in office at the time of my death".  The former may be said to be synonymous with the state: "I give my money to the government" means effectively the same thing as "I give my money to the Exchequer".  But Miss Edwards' formulation takes implicit account of the political situation.  Goverments change: "whichever government is in office on the day of my death" most naturally means "whichever bunch of politicians happen to have their feets under ministerial desks when I pop my clogs." 

Imagine Miss Edwards had died on the eve of an election.  In that case, the govenment in power at the time of her death would not be the same as the government in power when her will was executed and the estate distributed.  In that case, on a strict view, the money could not be given to anyone, since "the government in office at the date of my death" no longer existed.  Had she died in 2009 and the estate only finally wound up now (such delays are not unusual) the money could scarcely have gone to the Coalition, a government that was not "in office" at the requisite time.  Perhaps it would have gone to the Labour party.  But the Labour party led by Ed Miliband is not the same as the Labour government led by Gordon Brown, though it shares many of the same members.

Morally, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems would have had every right to keep the money, given the solicitors' insistence that Miss Edwards intended to make a political donation, however awkward the wording.  In the first instance it is for the executors to interpret the will; only if it is contested does ithe meaning of a will become a matter for the courts.  The solicitors are in a better position to know her intentions than the Daily Mail, which complained that "grasping politicians" had misappropriated the money, or than Polly Toynbee, who imagines (quite without evidence) that she "left her money to the people of the country" and that the two governing parties took "a chance to seize the money for themselves, carving it up between narrow party political interests."  Politically, however, this soon became impossible, because the Mail decided that it knew Miss Edwards had meant better than her solicitors did.  So the money has been sunk into general Treasury funds, where it will scarcely be noticed: the national debt grows every day by several times more than the £520,000 Miss Edwards left.  What a waste.  If the parties had to give up the money, it would have been better for David Cameron and Nick Clegg both to nominate a cause or purpose to receive their share of the money.  That might just have been what Miss Edwards wanted all along.