The forfeiture rule: some recent cases on unlawful death and inheritance in practice

27 Mar 2019

Two recent cases serve as a reminder of how the forfeiture rule operates where a beneficiary has or is alleged to have killed, or contributed to the death of, the deceased.

Arising in very different circumstances, these proceedings also show the difficult and sensitive issues that can arise where the forfeiture rule is engaged.

s.1 of the Forfeiture Act 1982 precludes a person who has unlawfully killed another from acquiring a benefit in consequence of the killing and, by virtue of s.1(2), a person who has aided abetted counselled or procured the death is treated as having unlawfully killed the deceased person. Yet under s.2, where a court determines that the forfeiture rule has precluded a person from acquiring any interest in property, the court may make an order excluding the effect of the rule where it is satisfied that, having regard to the conduct of the offender and of the deceased and to such other circumstances as appear to the court to be material, the justice of the case requires this.

In Gregory v Moore [2018] EWHC 2343 (Ch) (6 September 2018) Chief Master Marsh was asked to consider an application to strike out some of the points of claim in Forfeiture Act proceedings.

That case concerned the death of Barry Pring, who married Ms Moore about a year before his death. He was struck by motor vehicle in a hit and run incident in Ukraine and died intestate. His mother and brother believe that Ms Moore was implicated in Mr Pring’s death, and sought to establish this by asserting that s.1 of the Forfeiture Act 1982 applied so as to preclude Ms Moore from benefiting from his estate.

Although no charges were brought in Ukraine, an inquest was held in the UK and a verdict of unlawful killing was recorded in 2017. That verdict was subsequently overturned and a fresh inquest was ordered.

Meanwhile, points of claim were served asserting that Ms Moore had, amongst other things, made false statements to the courts in Ukraine and took advantage of Mr Pring financially during the marriage. As pointed out by the court, the claim relied heavily on circumstantial evidence.

The Chief Master struck out those aspects of the points of claim that were excessively vague or had peripheral relevance where it would be disproportionate to lead evidence on those issues.

Mr Pring’s family unsuccessfully appealed: see [2019] EWHC 566 (Ch) (20 February 2019). A 10-day trial is expected to take place later this year.

In Ninian v Findlay [2019] EWHC 297 (Ch) (21 February 2019), Mr Ninian, the deceased, had contracted a progressive incurable disease. He decided to make arrangements to travel to Switzerland with the assistance of Dignitas in order to commit suicide.

His wife, the sole beneficiary of the residue of his estate, was implacably opposed to the decision, but organised the trip to Zurich and accompanied him because he could not travel unaided. The CPS, however, decided not to prosecute the wife under the Suicide Act 1961.

The wife applied for relief against forfeiture under s.2 of the Forfeiture Act 1982.

Chief Master Marsh concluded that the wife’s acts were plainly capable of assisting the deceased’s suicide, and that although she did not wish him to commit suicide, she intended to assist him in that enterprise. The forfeiture rule was engaged.

However, the Chief Master identified a number of factors demonstrating that it was appropriate to grant relief, and duly did so. In particular, although the wife had, in his view, committed an offence under the Suicide Act 1961, the CPS decision not to prosecute was a powerful factor in favour of the grant of relief. Moreover, the deceased had reached a voluntary, clear and settled and informed decision to commit suicide, and the wife’s assistance could properly be characterised as reluctant assistance in the face of a determined wish on the part of her husband to commit suicide. The degree of moral culpability on the part of the wife was low.


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