Firms To Watch: Contentious trusts and probate

Fraser Dawbarns has a growing contentious probate practice, and ACTAPS member and senior associate Janet Lane is rapidly building the team a strong local reputation.

Contentious trusts and probate in East Anglia

Ashtons Legal

The contentious trusts and probate group at Ashtons Legal is noted as being ‘able to cut through the knotty issues and work collaboratively to reach desirable end goals‘. Partner and ACTAPS member Polly Stephenson and senior associate Katie Emerson, both based in Ipswich, combine ‘big legal brains with commercial pragmatism and huge amounts of emotional sensitivity‘. Stephenson recently defended a client individual in a £250,000 claim brought by her former partner. Litigation partner Annabel Mayer in Bury St Edmunds and ‘responsive, efficient and practical‘ Ipswich-based legal executive Joanna Baker are also highly recommended.

Practice head(s):

Polly Stephenson


Other key lawyers:

Annabel Mayer; Joanna Baker; Katie Emerson


Testimonials

‘Polly Stephenson is hugely knowledgeable and the manner and style of her advice and interventions is just right in that she is clear and reassuring, with appropriate directness.’

‘The team always have your best interests at heart. They explain in layman’s terms the good and the bad possibilities to a given situation, which in turn gives you the tools to make a sound decision. They go the extra mile to fully complete a given task.’

‘Joanna Baker is outstanding. She has the ability to make you feel that yours is the most important case in the world. Nothing is too much trouble and no task too small. All my questions have received an answer, which is fully explained to confirm my understanding of the situation. This has been invaluable. Her ability to treat very sensitives material with outstanding dignity has been exceptional.’

Work highlights


  • Defending a complex claim on a multi-million pound multi-jurisdictional estate. Ashtons instructed two years into the claim following a failed mediation handled by a City firm.
  • Advising the beneficiary of a trust of the artistic estate of a deceased member of a high-profile rock band.
  • Advising an individual in an important case which went to appeal in late 2022 wherein the judgment determined that there is no need to prove detriment in a claim for increased share of a jointly owned family home.

Birketts LLP

The dedicated contentious trusts and probate practice at Birketts LLP ‘has an outstanding working knowledge of the law concerning contentious probate, and explores every option‘. Practice head Bernadette Baker in Norwich is ‘polite, caring, honest and does exactly as she promises'. Legal director Kate Harris in Cambridge has extensive experience advising individuals, executors, trustees and charities in relation to a wide-range of contentious matters. Senior associate Lauren Coote, who joined in Cambridge from Greenwoods Legal in May 2023, is recommended for ‘her care and dedication to ensuring clients get the best possible advice‘.

Practice head(s):

Bernadette Baker


Other key lawyers:

Lauren Coote; Kate Harris


Testimonials

‘Bernadette Baker and the team are amazing in all areas.’

‘Bernadette Baker is a star. She is totally capable in all areas. She is polite, caring, honest and does exactly as she promises. She has, from day one, been an asset to me and the firm and in the future will be the only legal firm I will ever use.’

‘Always respond swiftly with clear, well thought through advice. Collaborative approach and always willing to take into account clients’ thoughts and wishes as appropriate. They are sensitive to challenges of cases.’

‘Birketts demonstrates a clear understanding of my issues and makes my position their priority. I have been left in no doubt that I am a valid customer and nothing is too much for them. The team has an outstanding working knowledge of the law concerning contentious probate and explores every option before presenting them to me. I had to move to Birketts from a law firm that failed me which left me in a vulnerable position. Birketts has taken me from a position of desperation to one of confidence.’

‘Lauren Coote’a legal expertise is very thorough but as important is her care and dedication to ensuring I get the best possible advice. There have been times when a pressing issue has meant that Lauren has contacted me at the start of her holiday or late in the evening through email, so that I am not left worrying about a pressing issue.’

‘Kate Harris ensured that my position was protected. I have been made to feel confident in the expert guidance that I have been given.’

‘From the moment I first approached Birketts LLP I was made to feel welcome and understood. Their ability to explain complex legal matters to laypersons was exceptional. I felt in safe hands throughout and never doubted that the advice and guidance was the best. Their customer service and communications can not be faulted.’

‘Lauren Coote was just an amazing person. No question was ever too much and was answered in a timely fashion. Her customer service left me feeling valued as a person not just as a customer of a firm. She had so many great interpersonal skills that made any conversation or meeting so easy and not a drama.’

Greene & Greene

Greene & Greene‘s Bury St Edmunds office’s practice handles high-value contentious matters relating to trusts and probate. The firm frequently advises on contested wills, including challenges to their validity on the grounds of lack of testamentary capacity and claims under the Inheritance Act involving multimillion-pound assets. Experienced litigation partner Rob Adam, who is ‘highly intelligent but modest and unflappable’, leads the practice, in which associate Bee Belby and legal executive Tracy-Ann Moore play pivotal roles. Consultant Kate Chandler retired in 2022. The lawyers ‘take the time to understand the individual and their needs to best serve them‘.

Practice head(s):

Rob Adam


Other key lawyers:

Tracy-Ann Moore; Bee Belby; Zoe Hodge


Testimonials

‘A practice with incredible capabilities that could rival any large city firm in terms of knowledge, attention-to-detail and client support. Greene & Greene’s open approach make clients feel they are in safe hands as the team work as one with a reassuring sense of commitment in working towards their clients’ ultimate goals. They provide a cost-efficient and tailored service.’

‘Rob Adam is undoubtedly the best solicitor I have ever worked with and there have been many. He is precise and measured yet approachable and charming. Rob Adam is phenomenally clever and is able to adapt and evolve with a case as it takes on twists and turns. No matter how complicated the situation becomes he remains calm and collected. Rob’s advice is concise and so reassuringly brilliant as he always takes into consideration his client’s ultimate goal, goes the extra mile when required but also remains cost-conscious throughout and constantly re-evaluates the case.’

‘The team perform to a high standard for me as a client, detailing everything from update invoices broken down to the very finest details, regularly updating any items I need to know about and advising me on the best steps forward, calling myself into meetings when they think I need to be there.’

‘This is the first time I have been in this situation and put my trust into those professional people who so far are doing what I consider to be the very best for the family and myself, the enormous amount of work to be carried out and not forgetting those behind the scenes that do the work we don’t see, a credit to all at Greene & Greene, my specific appreciation to Tracy-Ann Moore and Zoe Hodge.’

‘The team at Greene & Greene takes the time to understand the individual and their needs to best serve them as clients. This understanding ensures a good relationship develops and means that even bad or disappointing news can be delivered easily. They excel at being proactive and knowledgeable with the benefit of being able to communicate at a sensitive level for all clients.’

‘Bee Belby demonstrates a highly compassionate level of authority. Bee goes above and beyond to communicate in a manner that is understandable to the client and informative while always giving the decision-making process to the client and space and time to consider all options. Bee really does go way beyond her role to provide excellent customer service in a fashion that matches the client.’

‘I consider Greene & Greene an efficient firm that provides a capable but cost-effective service, especially for clients for whom the risks and realities of litigation are daunting.’

‘Rob Adam is very able, with excellent legal knowledge and skills, and supported by a great team to deliver a formidable and comprehensive service.’

Mills & Reeve LLP

Mills & Reeve LLP handles contentious matters in ‘highly effective, but calm, measured and practical way'. Practice head David Catchpole in Norwich takes the lead role in all of the firm’s complex and high-value matters, which frequently involve assets in excess of £10m; he is ‘a careful, thoughtful and conscientious solicitor who asks the right questions'. Associate James Russ in Cambridge is ‘hardworking, has a considered manner and is attentive-to-details'. The majority of the team are members of ACTAPS and the cohort is described as being ‘really specialist and deeply involved in estate and trusts disputes, and so offers real expertise and a deep understanding'. Partner Lucinda Brown joined from BDB Pitmans in late 2023.

Practice head(s):

David Catchpole


Other key lawyers:

James Russ; Lucinda Brown


Testimonials

‘David Catchpole is a careful, thoughtful and conscientious solicitor who asks the right questions, probes in the right places and generally demonstrates good legal judgment. He looks after clients, sympathises with them and thinks hard about their interests. James Russ is hardworking, has a considered manner and is attentive-to-detail.’

‘Mills & Reeve is an exceptionally strong firm when dealing with trusts and probate (contentious or not) and associated tax issues. I am impressed with the uniformly high standards. The firm seems a supportive and collegiate place to work and that feeds through into the provision of legal services in a highly effective, but calm, measured and practical way.’

‘Fee earners seem uniformly diplomatic, tactful and capable of dealing with difficult opponents and clients. All of these comments apply to the Norwich and Cambridge offices.’

‘The team is really specialist – they are deeply involved in estate and trusts disputes and so offer real expertise and deep understanding. They do this without some of the counterproductive aggression of some bigger name firms at a lower hourly rate.’

‘David Catchpole has a very human quality that really puts clients at ease. He also has a very sharp mind and is an excellent litigator, particularly strategically. He gives excellent, honest advice to clients and pursues matters with tenacity.’

‘David Catchpole is an experienced practitioner and hugely knowledgeable so I never have any hesitation in recommending to him.’

‘I have worked with Lucinda Brown for almost a decade and have great confidence in her abilities. She is sound on the law, runs her cases very efficiently and is a very effective negotiator. She fights hard for her clients but never loses objectivity or perspective.’

‘Lucinda Brown is a practical and reasonable lawyer who is very focused on her client’s objectives and getting the job done as quickly and as cost efficient as possible. She has a very solution-based approach and is good to work with as an opponent – although she can be a firm opponent, she does work well collaboratively to achieve a settlement for the matter as a whole.’

Tees Law

At Tees Law in Cambridge, ‘the contentious probate team thoroughly impresses with its careful and measured approach to probate litigation'. It is noted that they ‘really grasp cases with clarity, a keen insight and tactical and strategic awareness, as well as a healthy dose of professional realism'. Senior associate and practice head Sara Stabler is ‘remarkably thorough and careful, but also very pragmatic and down-to-earth'. She recently handled a proprietary estoppel claim worth £4m, brought by the daughter of the deceased, which was challenged by a residuary beneficiary.

Other key lawyers:

Sara Stabler


Testimonials

‘Sara Stabler is a remarkably thorough and careful solicitor, but also very pragmatic and down to earth.’

‘The contentious probate team has thoroughly impressed me with their careful and measured approach to probate litigation – they really grasp cases with clarity, a keen insight and tactical / strategic awareness, as well as a healthy dose of professional realism.’

Work highlights


  • Advising on a proprietary estoppel claim, worth £4m by the daughter of deceased challenged by a residuary beneficiary.
  • Advising on interrelated claims within a family dispute surrounding an estate worth more than £4 million which deal with complicated cultural issues.
  • Advising on the outstanding administration of a farming estate due to a long-standing dispute; the deceased died in the 1980s and a complicating factor is that the parties and executors have died.

BDB Pitmans

BDB Pitmans in Cambridge frequently acts for charities and not-for-profit organisations, owner-managed businesses and clients in the agricultural sector, and has a national reputation in private wealth matters. Practice head Lucinda Brown joined Mills & Reeve LLP in late 2023, but the firm is still regarded as highly capable in complex matters. Associate Cheryl Gayer, whose work encompasses mental capacity matters, breach of trust claims and proprietary estoppel claims, is the key contact.

Other key lawyers:

Cheryl Gayer


Testimonials

‘A strong team with a clear focus on achieving the client’s goals.’

‘I have worked with the contentious probate team on the other side to disputes. They show very good specialist knowledge and are very good at using internal resources if input outside the CP team on other areas is needed.’

Buckles Solicitors LLP

Buckles Solicitors LLP's team in Peterborough is noted as having ‘a very good and experienced contentious trusts and probate team with real expertise in cross-border estates‘. Lead partner and experienced litigator Paul Branch ‘keeps a cool head and knows the area inside-out‘. Senior associate and ACTAPS member Alex Burch is ‘thorough, capable and calm under pressure‘. The practice is active across the region in matters including Inheritance Act challenges by spouses, partners and children.

Practice head(s):

Paul Branch


Other key lawyers:

Alex Burch


Testimonials

‘Paul Branch is very easy to work with; he was always advising me and keeping me fully informed not only on the case but also the costs.’

‘Buckles is an excellent regional firm, with lots of experience in dealing with high-value contentious trusts and estates disputes. The firm has good strength and depth within the team and is also able to draw on a strong corporate and tax team where the case requires.’

‘Paul Branch is a strong team leader who always keeps a cool head and knows the area inside-out. He is not intimidated by big name opponents and is strong a fight. His experience as a mediator is invaluable in seeing where a seemingly intractable dispute might actually compromise. He has built a good team around him, including Alex Burch who is thorough, capable and calm under pressure.’

Work highlights


  • Advising a disabled minor on Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependant) Act claim and tax consequences of proposed settlement.
  • Advising on a £12m discretionary trust and persuading potential claimants not to bring claims against the estate.
  • Advising on a matter wherein an urgent statutory will was being sought, when the individual died before it could be ordered, bringing an I(PFD)A claim.

Howes Percival LLP

The practice at Howes Percival LLP is led from Milton Keynes but has an increasingly strong presence in Cambridge through experienced litigation partner Michael Green, and Stephen Patch, who bolstered the team with his arrival from Shoosmiths LLP in December 2022; Patch is an experienced adviser to high-net-worth individuals. Green, who is ‘excellent both in terms of technical expertise and litigation strategy‘, was recently appointed by the High Court to handle the winding up of a £5m farming estate. Litigation associate Victoria Sandell also plays a key role in the practice.

Practice head(s):

Jennifer Laskey; Michael Green; Stephen Patch


Other key lawyers:

Victoria Sandell


Testimonials

‘Their main strength is their skill in assessing a great deal of information and making difficult decisions about sensitive issues, while maintaining neutrality.’

‘Michael Green in particular is very astute and technically impressive. He’s also able quickly to get to grips with personalities and their management. Work is delegated sensibly to secure value for money.’

‘Michael Green is technically very good but also adept at dealing with people at an emotional time in their lives. As a litigator himself he’s very well-placed to understand the dynamics of these sorts of disputes, and is reliably robust with third parties claiming against the estate, which always goes down well with beneficiaries who want to see their inheritance preserved.’

‘An excellent service across the board.’

‘Michael Green is excellent both in terms of technical expertise and litigation strategy. He is calm and reassuring but prepared to take a hard line with the opposition where needed.’

‘I think Michael Green is standout: he is very knowledgeable, he sits as a part-time judge so he has an excellent feel for litigation and he is pragmatic. He is also very good with clients.’

Key clients

Forman Hardy Settlement Trust


Numerous court appointments


Bartingale Estate


Work highlights


  • Acting for a London banker in connection with a £2.5m family dispute involving a challenge to a Will, investigation into an attorney-ship and financial dealings spanning back years.
  • Acting as High Court administrators on £5m estate which involves the winding up of a farming partnership, associated dispute with farming tenants and winding up of a trust.
  • Representing estate executors in two connected estates in relation to challenging the granting of a right of way to a family member shortly prior to death, based upon undue influence.

Ellisons Solicitors

Ellisons Solicitors has a cross-office contentious trusts and probate practice for which the Bury St Edmunds office is a main hub. Key name to note include solicitor Sophie Clarke, who is ‘client-friendly and relaxed but with a steely resolve’.

Other key lawyers:

Sophie Clarke


Testimonials

‘A dedicated, knowledgeable, fast-reacting team, able to provide a comprehensive, swift and economic service to clients in trusts and probate disputes of all sizes.’

‘Professionalism and efficiency.’

‘Sophie Clarke has been my main point of contact throughout the entire process so far and I feel very fortunate. The whole idea of involving yourself with the legal system and solicitors is intimidating for someone with no previous knowledge or experience. Right from my first meeting with Sophie, she must’ve understood that and immediately put me at my ease. She was kind, calm, empathic and listened to what I had to say – and answered the immediate questions I had about my situation and the law.’

‘Sophie Clarke has an eye for detail and did a great job of compiling a cohesive, relevant storyline for my defence. I never felt excluded at anytime. I’ve very much felt a part of the process. She was empowering. My voice was always heard and any concerns I might’ve had, factored in. They’ve always given me good advice, and have acted completely professionally with my best interests at heart.’

Fosters

Fosters in Norwich has a busy practice advising clients across Norfolk on contentious trusts and probate matters. It is described as being ‘a very honest team that can be factual but at the same time carry empathy for the issues being dealt with, without judgement‘. Lead partner and associate ACTAPS member Chris Fielding is ‘focused, disciplined, and confident of his experience in trusts and probate‘. He recently advised a member of a sibling group challenging the claim of their stepmother to a £3m estate.

Practice head(s):

Chris Fielding


Testimonials

‘Chris Fielding is focused, disciplined confident of his experience in trusts and probate.’

‘A very honest team that can be factual but at the same time carry empathy for the issues being dealt with, without judgement.’

‘Everyone I have dealt with has been superb making sure I have total clarity on everything that is likely to happen.’

Work highlights


  • Advising the co-executor and residuary beneficiary of an estate under which shares in a successful, asset rich, property development business pass.
  • Advising the executor in relation to unrepaid substantial sums owed by a beneficiary to the estate.
  • Advising the co-executor and residuary beneficiary of an estate in which there is dispute over whether or not valuable development land has been transferred out of the deceased’s ownership before the date of death.

Nicholsons Solicitors LLP

At Nicholsons Solicitors LLP, the team based in Norwich and Lowestoft is described as acting in a way that is ‘centred around the client, where you are always made to feel valued‘. The practice has experience handling multimillion-pound claims against estates. ‘They take time to get to know you and make it feel like you are being listened to and understood’, is the feedback of clients of the team led by litigator Robert Tiffen.

Practice head(s):

Robert Tiffen


Testimonials

‘What makes Nicholson’s unique is the people-based approach, everything is centred around the client and you are always made to feel valued.’

‘They take time to get to know you, to understand the different scenarios you may present, and makes it feel like you are being listened to and understood.’