17 March 2021 | Comment | Article by Sarah Bolt
Brunt & Anor v Wrangle  1 WLUK 332 – retrial ordered over fraud allegations arising from a will produced years after letters of administration obtained
Dean Brunt died in December 2007. A few months prior to his death, Dean and his siblings inherited their grandfather’s farm. Following his death, his mother and eldest brother claimed that he had died intestate. As Dean was not married and had no children, this meant his mother would inherit his estate, and the interest he had in his grandfather’s farm.
In 2008, Dean’s mother obtained letters of administration. Over a decade later in 2018, Dean’s uncle sought to propound a will allegedly dated March 1999 that had been discovered by a family advisor. The will had been prepared and signed by a land agent, who had previously been convicted of an unrelated fraud and died before the trial took place. The will only came to light ten years after Mr Brunt’s death and 8 days before mediation arranged between the parties. A second original will was also discovered shortly before trial.
Whilst there was no dispute as to whether the signatures were genuine, there was a dispute as to whether the wills were signed in 1999. Both wills were signed by the land agent, but differed slightly and the handwriting experts agreed that the signatures on the first will matched the land agent’s signatures at a later date, when his handwriting had deteriorated. Experts also agreed both wills had been executed at the same time. Other evidence showed that will being signed was different to other documents that had been signed on that date. There were also suspicious circumstances which led the parties to believe the wills were a forgery.
Trial was originally listed for eight days, but reduced to three. This meant that only the key witnesses were cross-examined, rather than the expert witnesses. Master originally held that the will had been valid and that the uncle and sister were impressive witnesses who would not have associated themselves with a fraud. Also felt the mother was an unimpressive witness and expert evidence did not persuade him otherwise.
On appeal, it was held that the Master had erred in his approach to the assessment of evidence when concluding that a will had not been forged. He had erred in using unreliable contemporaneous documents as the basis for his consideration; had failed to give weight to other evidence indicating that the documents had been forged; and failed to give insufficient weight to the expert evidence, which all should have been part of the balancing exercise. The Court would expect him to show some of his workings and there was no explanation as to why he had concluded the mother was an unimpressive witness and what he had meant by taking into account the Deceased’s bad character. The expert evidence was strong evidence that the will had not been signed in 1999, but because it did not fit with the Master’s findings of fact it had been rejected. The Court ordered a re-trial.