Downton’s rich legal pickings

Series of unfortunate events shows legal profession taking a major role in latest outing of TV show

ITV’s Downton Abbey continued to enthral viewers in a recent episode, with the perhaps unlikely plotlines for a ratings winner of testamentary intention, death duties, forum shopping and wrongful dismissal.


Following the unwelcome discovery in series one that the heir to the Grantham estate was merely a “country solicitor”, cousin Matthew did little to enhance the profession’s reputation by dying, apparently, intestate.

All was saved, however, when it was discovered that the prospect of a journey to Scotland had provoked Matthew to set out his testamentary wishes. Quite what the two clients who had witnessed this thought about their trusted adviser’s high-net-worth advisory skills in reducing the future of the landed estate to a note shoved between the pages of a book was, thankfully, never divulged. 

Fortunately, however, following advice from Lord Grantham’s lawyer George Murray who had, apparently, consulted “various authorities”, it was assured the note had “legal status” and that Lady Mary was indeed heir to her husband’s estate and joint owner of Downton. No wonder the Law Society felt the need to launch its Wills and Inheritance Quality Scheme during this series.

Lord Grantham was clearly gutted by Murray’s advice, as were those viewers hoping to see the dowager countess carry out her threat of asking nanny to send him to bed with no supper.

The presence of a will did little to soften the fiscal blow for the estate. With no spousal exemption available, cousin Matthew might as well have left the estate to ‘Mrs Tiggywinkle down the road’. The issue of raising funds to meet death duties is clearly going to be a source of plotlines, with Lord Grantham hoping Lady Mary will not want to get involved in the running of the estate. All this despite Lady Mary no longer having a husband to tell her what her opinions are.

Meanwhile, newly glam Lady Edith moved closer to “living in sin” with the married Michel Gregson, who continues to forum shop for a jurisdiction prepared to give him a divorce on grounds of his wife’s lunacy. Let’s hope Lady Edith had not taken advice from cousin Matthew. Goodness knows what he would have told her about her rights as a “common-law wife” or her prospects under Tolata Sch.1 and the Inheritance Act.

The fallout from Matthew’s early demise extended beyond the Crawleys. Moseley the ex-valet was reduced to repairing roads to pay his debts. Fortunately, Lord Grantham’s valet Bates and Lady Violet saved the day (and the prospect of a wrongful dismissal claim) by slipping him 30 quid.

Even criminal law was nearly touched on when below-stairs stars Anna and Jimmy whisked Lady Rose away from charges of affray following a fight during a thé dansant.

 There are clearly rich legal pickings to be had from the current series, and Lady Violet’s remark that “lawyers are always confident before the verdict; it’s only afterwards they share their doubts” will no doubt remain a highlight.