Jul 2022
Out and about in the Carbon community with Peter Steer

Peter Steer on being a lawyer and contentious probate specialist to the charity sector.

In line with the end of endless lockdowns (for now) we’ve been out and about in the Carbon community recently chatting to our partners and remembering what great lawyers and people they are!

We started off this month with our contentious probate specialist Peter Steer  who advises clients in the charity sector.

So Peter, let me put my Robin Day glasses on (thankfully Peter gets this reference). Tell me a bit about your legal life and career so far – but with no name dropping! Can you do it?!

I’ll give it a try! I started my career in the City doing commercial litigation, then working on solicitors’ professional negligence cases. In the mid 90s I started picking up contentious probate cases for charities. My offering grew so that two or three years later, I decided to focus solely on charities, tackling the more “quirky” disputes about Wills and estates and matters involving mental capacity and dementia. I learned a great deal in those early years from Professor Robin Jacoby, a brilliant Old Age psychiatrist at Oxford University, who became my go-to expert on mental capacity cases. Robin and I co-authored a medico-legal article for the BMJ on assessing capacity which is still referred to. 

What is the test for capacity to make a Will? 

It goes back to a 1870 case about paranoid delusions, Banks v Goodfellow and it hasn’t changed a great deal since then. It involves an analysis of what the person can understand and take in at the time of making their will, essentially whether some disorder of the mind has significantly affected their normal abilities. A lot of the cases involve people whose capacity is borderline usually because of increasing dementia. There is also a lot of third-party fraud /undue influence that goes on around this, sadly.  

Can you tell us some more about working with charities and wills?  

Sometimes you’re challenging the last Will to say it’s invalid, or you’re defending the last Will to say it’s perfectly valid.  Charities receive millions of pounds every year from Will donations, it is a vital source of funding for so many of them. Usually that money comes in easily through the executors, but a small number of cases end up in dispute.  

What are some of the more memorable things you have seen as a legal adviser to the charity sector?

The odd things people do or say in their Wills.  I particularly remember a lady who’d cut out her husband of 40 odd years entirely, saying in the Will itself: “I have made no provision for my husband because in 1967 he called my mother a fat old bag.”  Be careful what you say to your mother-in-law! 

I was also involved with the high-profile case of Miss Annie Kay when fraudsters took advantage of a vulnerable senior who had a great deal of wealth and made a Will to benefit several charities. A couple called the Spillmans found out, and began to ”look after” Miss Kay, but in fact this was an elaborate play to get her money. They dressed up Mrs Spillman’s mother to look like Miss Kay and pretend to be her in order to dupe a new solicitor into changing the existing Will.  The forged Will left her estate to “her good friends the Spillmans.” Long story short – it all came to light and they received a judicial sentence. 

What are some of the highlights of working as a charity sector lawyer? 

Securing a major legacy for a charity in difficult circumstances always gives me a buzz. Negotiating a sensible compromise where a claim has to be settled and ensuring that the charity gets a fair sum. I guess over the years I’ve helped to add millions to the funds charities need to keep going with their amazing work, including recently a £20m legacy for one lucky charity client. It’s always satisfying to see the money coming through to my clients and to know that my skills and experience have made an impact. 

What led you to Carbon Law Partners? 

I worked in-house as a specialist adviser to the National Trust, which gave me a deeper insight into the way charities operate.  One client said to me recently. “You know exactly what we need without us asking.” 

I started my own legal practice with Carbon in 2020 – the week we went into lockdown! 

What a time to start a new job! And what works for you when it comes to being a partner at Carbon Law Partners? 

The Carbon business model really works for me.   Clients get my thirty years of specialist legal experience in the charity sector flexibly and at best value. It is brilliant running your own show in terms of being able to do the work you really, really want to do.  

And last but not least: give me one interesting fact about Peter when he is not being a lawyer and a song for the Carbon playlist!  

I was a choral scholar at Wells Cathedral and went to the specialist music school there. .  I’m still singing in my spare time and have started doing some opera. My last performance was as the Commendatore in Don Giovanni in Oxford just before lockdown. 

Strong Morse vibes! So what’s your song for the Carbon Playlist? 

Gosh, that’s the hardest question you’ve asked me!  So many to choose, but I’m going with “How Do You Keep The Music Playing?” It’s a really magical song I discovered recently, with a jazzy arrangement by Alexander L’Estrange. A real earworm. 

That you Peter, and for this amazing insight into your world as a charity lawyer and all the great work you do. 

If you are a charity or individual looking for legal support and would like to speak with Peter, contact him on peter.steer@carbonlawpartners.com