Court refuses to accept descendant’s fraud claims

Stormy August, Millbrook and Elizabeth Castle by Sir Francis Cook

THE grandson of the artist and art collector Sir Francis Cook – who died in 1978 – has failed to persuade the Royal Court he was the victim of fraud by the fourth baronet’s seventh and last wife, Brenda, Lady Cook, and a Jersey trustee.

Richard Cook was appealing against a decision of the Judicial Greffier to throw out his case without allowing it to go to trial, a process known as summary judgment reserved for cases judged to have no prospect of success.

Commissioner Sir William Bailhache agreed with the Judicial Greffier, describing the case as ‘a relatively simple one of construction in respect of [an] appointment [deed]’.

At its heart was a Jersey-based trust – the Sir Francis Cook Fine Art Trust – which held many of Sir Francis Cook’s own paintings and musical recordings, and other works of art. Mr Cook claimed that the purported transfer of its assets to Lady Cook after her late husband’s death had been flawed in various ways, including the possibility of fraud by Lady Cook and by the third defendant, Leslie Crapp, one of the trustees. Mr Cook claimed that the trust was entitled to be compensated for its resulting losses, possibly including the sale of a portrait of Viscount Bridport by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Although no copy of the appointment deed survived, the court was faced with weighing the available evidence to determine its likely content and the extent to which Mr Cook’s claims of impropriety could be substantiated.

In an unusual case procedurally, Mr Cook – who was not legally represented – tried on a number of occasions before both the Judicial Greffier and Commissioner Bailhache to change his case, notably withdrawing the allegations of fraud during the course of his appeal.

Those allegations ‘should never have been made’, the Commissioner said in his judgment. ‘There was no focus in them, and the amended pleading simply besmirches the third defendant’s integrity without any justification or particularisation. The fact that the plaintiff is a litigant in person and not a qualified lawyer is no excuse,’ he continued.

But the appeal took a further twist when Mr Cook tried to change his mind again after a draft copy of the Royal Court’s judgment had been circulated to the parties, a formal process intended simply to allow drafting mistakes to be amended. Having read the draft, Mr Cook asked the court to allow him to reinstate his allegations of fraud and to grant a full trial with witnesses, something which Commissioner Bailhache described as ‘a remarkable volte face’.

Mr Cook claimed he had ‘extremely relevant new evidence’ in the form of emails not available to him earlier in the proceedings but Commissioner Bailhache dismissed them as ‘no new evidence … merely a set of express or implied questions to which there is currently no answer’.

He said there was nothing in Mr Cook’s revised submissions to address the matter at the centre of the case, which was the appointment deed extending the assets of the Sir Francis Cook Fine Art Trust.

‘The evidence provided by the defendants supported the conclusion that the appointment extended to all the assets in the [trust] when it was executed and summary judgment in favour of the defendants was appropriate. The Judicial Greffier had reached the same conclusion and I am entitled to give some weight to his view as well.

‘Notwithstanding that the plaintiff went far beyond what was permissible in his comments on the draft judgment, and notwithstanding that I would be entitled to refuse him leave to reverse the concessions he rightly made at the hearing, there is nothing in what he has subsequently submitted which would cause me to change my conclusions. The plaintiff’s appeal is dismissed,’ Commissioner Bailhache said.

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