Law Lords protect the family home

In 1986 Norton Rose put one of their newest recruits, Catriona Syed, on the team advising a wealthy widow on how to avoid the tax man getting his claws into the family home after her death.

Now, over a decade later, Syed, who joined Charles Russell along with Norton Rose's private client department in 1997, has won the case. The House of Lords decision in the case of Ingram & Anor v The Commissioners of the Inland Revenue has left the tax man smarting and has potentially opened up a £500 million inheritance tax loophole.

Although the implications of the case may not be quite as wide as some newspapers have trumpeted them to be, they are nevertheless significant.

There is now talk of legislation to overcome the effect of the Law Lords' ruling.

From a tax point of view the case has established an important precedent. But for Catriona Syed, what is even more remarkable is that she has seen the advice she was originally involved in giving years ago upheld by the highest court.

The ruling of the Law Lords upholds the efficacy of the scheme put in place by Syed and her colleagues in a bid to safeguard the late Lady Jane Ingram's £600,000 family home, Twyford Lodge in Berkshire, from the ravages of inheritance tax after her death.

The children of Lady Ingram, whose husband was wealthy stockbroker Sir Herbert Ingram, would have faced a crippling tax bill of more than £150,000 under inheritance tax laws which kick in at 40 per cent on estates worth over £223,000.

However, back in 1986 Syed and the Norton Rose team, along with counsel Robert Venables QC and Michael MacFadyen, drew up a scheme under which Lady Ingram transferred the property into a family trust. In return she was to be allowed to live there rent free under a 20-year lease and did so until her death in 1989.

Since her death, the family have battled through the courts with the Inland Revenue, who claimed that when Lady Ingram handed over the property to the family trust it was not a genuine gift, but was merely a device to duck inheritance tax – and in those circumstances was not effective.

In the High Court the Inland Revenue's arguments were rejected, but the Court of Appeal backed the tax men. In a landmark ruling, which is good news for many property owners, Lords Browne-Wilkinson, Steyn, Hoffman, Clyde and Hutton have ruled that the scheme was valid.

"It's a very nice feeling to have worked on a case from the very outset and to finally see the advice we gave backed by the House of Lords," says Syed.

She says the decision should benefit a lot of people, although maybe not as many as some reports have indicated, "The benefits of the scheme are to people with family homes which are being kept in the family and handed down through generations," she said.

"This is where the scheme really works, not in situations where a property is to be sold.

"However, I know there are a lot of people who have entered similar arrangements to the one Lady Ingram entered and they are going to be very relieved at the decision of the Law Lords."