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Court rejects claim against council brought by heirs of donor of school land

Oxfordshire County Council does not owe money to the heirs of someone who donated land more than 100 years ago to provide a school, a High Court judge has ruled.

Richard Spearman QC, sitting as a deputy judge of the Chancery Division, said he was dealing with legal areas rarely tested but rejected the case brought by four heirs of the donor Robert Fleming, who died in 1933.

The case concerned two grants of land to Oxfordshire under section 2 of the School Sites Act 1841, made in 1914 and 1928 to provide a village school in Nettlebed.

Oxfordshire in 2006 decided to sell the sites and use the proceeds to build a new school more suited to modern needs.

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The judge said: “The question at the heart of this case has not previously fallen for determination.

“That question involves considering two rival approaches to interpretation: on the one hand, that land ceases to be used as the site for a school the moment the school is closed; and, on the other, that the power of sale exists to enable a school to be moved from one location to another, and that the intention behind section 14 of the 1841 Act would be frustrated if, in order to avoid the reverter of the land to the grantor, it was necessary for the school to remain in use at the original site until the new site is ready for it to move into.”

Mr Fleming’s heirs submitted that the land reverted in February 2006 when the school moved from its original site and that Oxfordshire in fact held a substantial part of the subsequent proceeds of sale on trust for them.

Oxfordshire argued that this was not the case since it still provided a school, funded in part by sale of the original site.

Mr Spearman said Oxfordshire could argue that although the school had moved to an adjacent site the sale of the old site meant it was being used “for the purposes of that public elementary school”, as originally intended.

“In my opinion, that broader approach accords with, and is reinforced by, the power of sale and exchange conferred by section 14 of the 1841 Act”, the judge said.

He added that if Oxfordshire were required to keep the school in operation until it moved, “that may cause them practical difficulties and may depress the price they are able to realise from the sale, all of which will be to the detriment of the trust”.

Mark Smulian

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