10 October 2014 | Comment | Article by Vlad Macdonald-Munteanu

Forfeiture – when will a court decline to apply this principle?

Vlad examines the recent case of Chadwick v Collinson & Ors [2014] EWHC 2055 (Ch) in which the court held that a person who had killed their partner and son could not benefit from his partner's estate.

The recent case of Chadwick v Collinson & Ors [2014] EWHC 2055 (Ch) highlights the court's approach to the well-established principle of forfeiture (a person is prohibited from benefitting from another person's estate where they have unlawfully killed that person) and the limited circumstances in which a person who has unlawfully killed another, can benefit from their estate.

Paul Chadwick lived with his partner, Lisa Jane Clay, and their infant son, Joseph, at their jointly owned property. In April 2013, Paul stabbed and killed his partner and their son. He was duly charged with murder and pleaded guilty to manslaughter on grounds of diminished responsibility, due to his mental health illness, which the Crown accepted.

Lisa had made a will in 2008 which named Paul as the residuary beneficiary. Aside from her interest in the property, Lisa left various other assets including a death benefit insurance policy and lump sum payable under a pension scheme. The net estate was valued at £79,087.87 but £60,000 represented her interest in the jointly owned property.

Lisa’s interest in the property would normally have passed to Paul under the doctrine of survivorship because the joint tenancy had not be been severed prior to her death.

Pausing here, it is worth considering the principle of forfeiture to establish its relevance in this situation.

Forfeiture

Forfeiture originated from a common law rule, which, for public policy reasons, precludes a person who has unlawfully killed another from acquiring a benefit as a result of the killing. This principle was enshrined in legislation under s.1 Forfeiture Act 1982. However, s.2 Forfeiture Act 1982 also gave the court a power to modify the application of the principle in individual cases.

Under s.2 Forfeiture Act 1982 the court can consider the conduct of the offender and deceased as well as such other circumstances as appear to be material and where the justice of the case requires the rule to be modified. There has been judicial commentary regarding the meaning of the term “where the justice of the case requires” to include considering the relationship between the parties, degree of moral culpability, nature and gravity of the offence, intention of the deceased, size and value of the estate, financial position of the offender and moral claims and wishes of those who would be entitled to benefit on the application of the forfeiture rule.

Application to facts

Therefore the forfeiture rule, on the face of it, prevented Paul from deriving any benefit from Lisa’s estate, effectively depriving him of the £79,087.87 he was due to receive. However, Paul commenced proceedings to argue that forfeiture should not apply as he was convicted of manslaughter given the medical evidence presented and/or that the principle should be disapplied having taken into consideration all factors according to s.2(2) of the Act.

Judgment

Judge Pelling QC agreed with settled law that the principle of forfeiture applies to all cases of unlawful killing including manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility and did not entertain the point further.

Further, Judge Pelling QC stated that the “justice of this case does not require that I modify the effect of the Forfeiture Rule” before citing the following reasons: the level of culpability had not been reduced to a level so low that to apply forfeiture would offend public policy; Paul’s conduct during the attack; there was no provocation from Lisa; and that most of the value in the estate came from Lisa’s inheritance from her mother.

Paul’s financial position and future ability to earn a living were considered but did not tip the scale in Paul's favour.

Therefore Paul’s claim failed and forfeiture applied meaning that he was not entitled to benefit under Lisa’s estate.

Comment

The judgement unequivocally shows that only in the most extreme and mitigating circumstances will the court disapply the forfeiture rule.

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