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British National Party Defeated in £389,000 Will Dispute

In a case which threw up novel issues relating to wills and foreign donations to UK political parties, the British National Party (BNP) found itself in legal hot water after failing to convince the High Court that it was entitled to inherit £389,000 left to it by a British national who had lived abroad for almost 20 years.

When Northumbria-born Joseph Robson died in Alicante, Spain, at the age of 81 in March 2010, he bequeathed his entire estate outside Spain – almost entirely made up of offshore investments –- to the BNP. One of his sons received just £135 under the will and the other nothing.

However, the Court ruled that Mr Robson’s will fell foul of the prohibition on foreign donations to UK-registered political parties – and that the BNP had broken the law by  ‘receiving’ and ‘accepting’ the bequest in breach of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The Court effectively tore up Mr Robson’s will, declared that he died intestate and awarded his estate to his sons.

There was no evidence that Mr Robson had been registered to vote in the UK at any time in the five years before his death and he was therefore not a ‘permissible donor’ to the BNP nor any other UK-registered political party, the Court found. He had not lived in Britain ‘at any period after 1992’ and exhaustive searches of the electoral rolls had failed to turn up his name. The possibility that he was registered to vote in England in the five years before he died was ‘at best, highly unlikely’.

BNP officials had taken steps to change the terms of Mr Robson’s will, by means of a deed of variation, so that his bequest would be paid into a trust, rather than directly to the party. However, the Court ruled that, by the taking of those steps, Mr Robson’s gift had been inadvertently ‘accepted’ and ‘received’ by the BNP in breach of the Act, which contained ‘penal provisions’.

Although Mr Robson’s money had not been distributed by the executor of his estate pending the outcome of the case, the Court reached the ‘inescapable conclusion’ that the BNP ‘had accepted the gift’ before attempting to ‘pass it over’ to trustees. Mr Robson could not lawfully have made the gift, whether in his will or during his lifetime, and the BNP had not been entitled to accept or receive it.