10 March 2016 by

Can a Criminal Benefit from Their Wrongdoing?

There is a public policy preventing someone who has unlawfully killed another person from benefiting from that person’s estate (otherwise called, the “forfeiture rule”). It includes murder and all forms of manslaughter; and applies to gifts by Will, under the intestacy rules (where the deceased died without making a Will), to property passing by survivorship and to life assurance benefits.

The forfeiture rule was recently examined in the case of Henderson v Wilcox where the claimant, the son of the deceased (Ian), attacked and killed his mother.

The deceased believed Ian had been born with a hereditary brain illness and she looked after him during her life. As Ian had a low IQ, had been kept isolated from other people and had always been taken care of, he did not have the necessary life skills to do the same for his mother when she became too elderly. His plea of not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter was also accepted based on lack of intention to kill or cause really serious injury.

The court has the power to modify the rule where necessary and Ian relied on that by applying for relief from forfeiture to let him inherit his mother’s estate.

Her estate amounted to slightly over £150,000. Ian was the sole beneficiary under his mother’s Will and the deceased’s nephew was the substitute beneficiary should Ian predecease.

The estate did not include the house in which the deceased and the claimant had lived because in 2011 they had each transferred their interest to two family protection trusts. Ian’s mother chose herself, her son and her nephew as beneficiaries. The property was held on trust for the deceased, subject to the trustees’ discretionary powers to use funds for the benefit of the beneficiaries. Ian’s trust was a mirror image of his mother’s.

As the trust did not fall under the deceased’s estate, the court had to answer the following questions:

  1. Was the trust subject to the forfeiture rule; and
  2. Should relief of forfeiture be applied to allow Ian to inherit his mother’s estate?

Regarding the first question, the court held that the rule does not apply to discretionary trusts created in the lifetime of the deceased. The reason for that is that the interests Ian has or may have under the trust do not arise or result from his mother’s death and his interest was not created or enlarged by her death. Therefore, it is up to the trustees to exercise their discretion to make payments to Ian if they think fit.

As to the second question, s. 2(2) of the Forfeiture Act 1982 states that “the court cannot make an order unless 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 the effect of the rule to be so modified”.

What these include are the relationship between the two parties, the degree of moral culpability, the nature and gravity of the offence, the intentions of the deceased, the size of the estate and the value of the property in dispute.

The court considered the various factors. They put little weight on the fact that Ian’s basic needs were met by the state and that his mother would have wanted him to be well. They considered that Ian would benefit from his own trust and could also benefit from his mother’s trust should the trustees allow that.

Moreover, they pointed out that the offence was not only of a serious nature but it was one of many attacks which had gone on for months and resulted in his mother’s death.

As abovementioned, his culpability was lessened due to his inability to look after his mother. The court also took into account that there was no clear medical view regarding the extent to which Ian suffered from mental disorders such as depression or autism, but it was concluded that to the extent he did they may have contributed towards his actions. Nevertheless, he had the mental capacity to differentiate right from wrong and to understand what he was doing and none of the medical experts thought he was unfit to plead in the criminal trial.

In conclusion no case of diminished responsibility was accepted and the court held justice did not require modification of the forfeiture rule.

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