Shakespeare for lawyers

By | 21 July 2014

With the Globe Theatre Company returning to the Bodleian Quad this week, I felt a combination of great writer and great location ought to inspire a little blogging. This year’s performance is King Lear, in which an aging king decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters and retire early.

A quick look around the internet suggests that most commentators identify the central legal theme in King Lear as ‘natural law’, and the disruption thereof.  I disagree though – surely to the modern lawyer the obvious story here is succession & estate planning?  Admittedly, a search for ‘law of succession’ in SOLO and browsing among the pre-1800 works suggests that 17th century authors were generally more concerned with succession of kings (or other inherited positions of aristocracy) than passing property.  There’s an Oxford connection here as well, in the proceedings in the House of Commons, which met in Oxford on the 21st March 1680 debating the succession of James II (of England, and VII of Scotland) – copies available in the Bodleian, a number of college libraries, and more accessibly, online. Those interested in what Shakespeare thought of the law of succession could try Jenkins, Inheritance law and political theology in Shakespeare and Milton (2013).

The Succession to the Crown Act 2013 notwithstanding, modern lawyers are more likely to consider property than position when they think of estate planning.  Inheritance tax figures particularly strongly (although that is one problem King Lear doesn’t appear to have faced.)  Lear is not, of course, the only person to have had problems dividing his property among his children, as you’ll see if you fancy spending a Monday afternoon browsing legal databases.  (What else would you be doing on a Monday afternoon?)  As a starting point it’s worth browsing the commentary, on the Law Bod shelves at KM337.35, KN120 and KN142 or in LexisLibrary in Commentary – Succession & Estate Planning (use your OSS to log in).  Alternatively, you can try a variety of keywords in the case search screen of your preferred database: “undue influence”, gifts, succession, “reservation of benefit”, inheritance.

A selection of the results include in a son who told his mother she could come to live with him, and after receiving her property left her in a nursing home (Irvine and Irvine, [1977] 3 W.W.R. 37); siblings who took their brother to court after he provided a home for their father, who gratefully made a gift of all his property to his dutiful son (Bateman and Overy, [2014] EWHC 432 (Ch)); and offspring who did move in with their mother to look after her – then spent her money on a sports car and power boat (Hodson v Hodson, [2006] EWHC 2878 (Ch)).   And once you’ve given your property away, can you get it back (Wallbank v Price, [2007] EWHC 3001 (Ch); Allcard v Skinner (1887) 36 Ch. D. 145)?

While for legal research you should, of course, be searching for the legal terms and issues, I also took a look at the case circumstances.  This is a good time to remember your advanced search techniques; try divi! [w]/s property AND three [w]/5 daughters as a starting point.  My search found another case raising a Lear-esque problem: if you planned to split your property between three daughters, how easy is it to cut one of them out if they do something (or “nothing”) to change your mind (Re the Kellogg Estate; Rouches v Kellogg and others, (2013) 16 ITELR 717)?

Watch this space for our succession libguide, coming soon.

Tickets for King Lear at the Bodleian here.