21 February 2019 by

The High Court has granted a widow relief from forfeiture after she assisted her husband with his suicide.   Ninian v Findlay & Others [2019] EWHC 297 (Ch)

Our contentious probate team achieved success for the Claimant by persuading the High Court to exclude the effect of the forfeiture rule in relation to assets she held jointly with her husband and her interest in his estate (of which she was the sole beneficiary). Mr Ninian made the agonising decision that he wanted to end his life following a diagnosis of Progressive Supra-nuclear Palsy (“PSP”) and, motivated only by love and following his request, Mrs Ninian assisted her husband in making arrangements for him to travel to the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland.

If relief had not been granted then the effect on Mrs Ninian would have been that no part of Mr Ninian’s estate, or his interest in their joint assets, would have passed to her. Instead, the assets would have passed to the substitute beneficiaries named in Mr Ninian’s Will.

Those guilty of the offence of assisting or encouraging a suicide under section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961 automatically forfeit their interests in the deceased person’s estate. This is known as the ‘forfeiture rule’. The rule will apply irrespective of whether there is a criminal prosecution.

Section 2(1) of the Forfeiture Act 1982 allows the Court to modify the effect of the forfeiture rule where the justice of the case requires, however, in order to inherit the deceased’s estate any person who has assisted or encouraged their suicide must apply to the Court for relief from the forfeiture rule.

The Court commended the “careful and methodical” way in which our team and counsel had prepared the case and provided some helpful guidance to be applied in future cases. In particular the Court stated that:

The exercise of the Court’s discretion under the Forfeiture Act is a sensitive one due to the interaction between different elements of the justice system. The Court will wish to be informed about the background to the claim with complete candour. A decision by the CPS not to prosecute, because it is considered not to be in the public interest to do so, is an important factor for the court to take into account. It is, however, but one factor and it is necessary for the Court to be informed of the full background.

In this case, due to the careful way in which the claim had been prepared, it was possible for the Court to deal with it at a disposal hearing lasting not much more than an hour. The Court indicated that whether it is possible to deal with similar cases at a short hearing will depend upon the view that the Court takes about the evidence. It emphasised that it is unlikely that the Court will ever feel able to deal with a claim of this type without a hearing due to the benefit that is obtained from oral submissions from counsel.

Whilst each case will be fact specific, the Court confirmed that the steps taken by Mrs Ninian and her legal team were entirely appropriate and they provide a good illustration of the steps which will be required to be taken in future cases, if relief from forfeiture is to be obtained.

You can also contact one of our solicitors in the Contentious Trusts and Probate team here.

Please click here for a link to the judgment.


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