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Most people would agree that if a person is convicted of unlawfully killing another person, it would be wrong for them to be allowed to benefit from their crime. For example, if a husband kills his wife and is the main beneficiary of his wife’s valuable life insurance policy, or is the main beneficiary of her estate under a will she has made, it would generally be unpalatable for the husband to be allowed to benefit from the policy or the estate. This principle is upheld in law by what is known as ‘the forfeiture rule’.
The forfeiture rule is defined at section 1 of the Forfeiture Act 1982 as “the rule of public policy which in certain circumstances precludes a person who has unlawfully killed another from acquiring a benefit in consequence of the killing”. It is this rule that prevents a person who is convicted of killing another from inheriting any of the deceased’s estate. The public policy reasons for this rule are obvious; it cannot be right that a person who kills another should be allowed to benefit from their victim’s estate as a result of their crime.
However, the court does have the power under section 2 of the Forfeiture Act 1982 to modify or exclude the effect of the forfeiture rule if it is satisfied that the justice of the case requires it (though this does not apply to cases where a person has been convicted of murder). A claim to modify the forfeiture rule must be brought within 3 months of the date of conviction. The court does not have the discretion to extend that time period.
Cases involving the forfeiture rule are relatively uncommon, but the court has been asked to modify the effects of the forfeiture rule in two recent cases decided in April and May 2020, demonstrating how the court can use its power to modify the rule in cases where the application of the rule would otherwise be manifestly unjust:
In April the court heard this case which arose from the very tragic death of Mr Royston Amos in January 2019. His wife, Mrs Sandra Amos (in her 70s) was driving Mr Amos (aged 81) home after a long journey and failed to stop at a roundabout on the M4 motorway, causing a four-vehicle collision. Both initially appeared unhurt, but Mr Amos died in hospital later that evening from multiple traumatic injuries caused in the accident.
Mrs Amos was charged with causing his death by careless driving and pleaded guilty at the first opportunity. Mrs Amos was sentenced to 32 weeks’ imprisonment, suspended for 12 months and she was also disqualified from driving for 12 months.
Following her conviction, Mrs Amos applied for (1) a declaration as to whether the forfeiture rule applied to her and, (2) if it did apply, the modification of the effect of that rule.
Under Mr Amos’ will which he had made in June 2016, Mrs Amos was the beneficiary of Mr Amos’ residuary estate, if she survived him. If the forfeiture rule applied unmodified, then by reason of Mrs Amos’ conviction, the beneficiaries of Mr Amos’ estate under the 2016 will would instead be his daughter from a previous marriage, his granddaughter and Mrs Amos’ son by a previous marriage. Further, Mr and Mrs Amos had purchased their home in joint names in 1992, which unless the forfeiture rule applied unmodified, would pass to Mrs Amos under the doctrine of survivorship.
Mr Amos’ daughter had initially indicated an intention to contest Mrs Amos’ claim on the basis that her father had wanted to change his will, but she did not file further evidence when directed to do so and played no further part in the claim. The two other beneficiaries did not contest the claim and none of the beneficiaries appeared at the hearing, such that Mrs Amos’ claim was effectively uncontested.
The judge was asked firstly to decide whether the forfeiture rule applied to Mrs Amos, given that the case did not involve a murder or manslaughter. The judge concluded that the forfeiture rule did apply in the current case; there was no reason to distinguish cases of causing death by careless driving from other cases of unlawful killing, such as manslaughter.
Therefore the judge went on to decide whether the court should exercise the power to modify or exclude the forfeiture rule. In making that decision, the judge considered that he must have regard to the conduct of Mr and Mrs Amos, as well as to the other material circumstances. This included the fact that Mrs Amos had been driving for a very long period and that the accident happened when it was raining and getting dark. On the facts, the judge was satisfied that the couple had intended that the survivor of them both would become entitled to the property they had purchased together and which was their home. He also considered it significant that two of the beneficiaries had not contested the claim.
The judge therefore reached the conclusion that it would be unjust for the forfeiture rule to apply in this case so as to deprive Mrs Amos of her husband’s share in their former matrimonial home or the gift in his will. In his view, the loss of either would be significantly out of proportion to her culpability in the offence in question. Accordingly, the judge was satisfied that justice required him to use the powers in section 2 of the Forfeiture Act 1982 to modify the rule so as to allow her take her husband’s interest in the property and to inherit the gift under her husband’s will.
In May 2020 the court handed down judgment in the case concerning Sally Challen, who claimed relief from the forfeiture rule relating to the inheritance of property from her husband Richard Challen, whom she had killed in 2010.
The defendants, Mrs Challen’s sons, took no active part in the hearing, although they did support their mother’s claim. HMRC also did not respond to enquiries as to whether it wanted to participate in the hearing.
Mr and Mrs Challen had met when she was a schoolgirl and had been in a relationship for more than 40 years, during which time they had two sons together. Over the period of their relationship, Mr Challen had been unfaithful to his wife, used prostitutes, had affairs, been violent towards Mrs Challen, subjected her to humiliating conduct and isolated her from friends. In 2010 Mrs Challen killed her husband with a hammer and was convicted of murder in 2011, receiving a sentence of life imprisonment. The evidence in the case established that Mrs Challen at the time of the killing was suffering from psychiatric illness, as a result of the coercive control exercised over her by Mr Challen..
In February 2019 Mrs Challen’s murder conviction was quashed by the Court of Appeal after a panel of three judges ruled that her conviction was unsafe in light of new evidence that was not available at the time of her trial. The matter was remitted for a retrial and during that process Mrs Challen offered a plea of guilty to manslaughter which was subsequently accepted. Mrs Challen was sentenced to a prison term of nine years and 4 months for the manslaughter and, by reason of credit given for her imprisonment already served, she was immediately released from custody.
Following her release, Mrs Challen applied for relief from the forfeiture rule which prevented her from inheriting property belonging to her husband. The court was concerned with three issues in this case; (1) the timing of the application (2) the test to be applied and (3) the merits of the application.
Mrs Challen’s application had been brought within three months of the date when her plea of guilty to manslaughter was formally accepted and she was sentenced. However the judge considered whether the date from which time started to run might in fact be the date of Mrs Challen’s original murder conviction, the date she offered the manslaughter plea, or the date on which it was accepted – all of which would have meant that her application was out of time. After considering the law around the issue, the judge concluded that the time limit started to run from the date on which Mrs Challen was sentenced for manslaughter, meaning that her claim was in time.
Turning to the second issue, the judge confirmed that the test (in England and Wales) for making an order modifying the effect of the forfeiture rule required the court to take all the relevant circumstances into account, and to decide whether “the justice of the case” required that the forfeiture rule be modified in its application.
The first question the judge considered was whether the forfeiture rule applied to the present case at all. As this was a deliberate rather than accidental killing, the judge held that the forfeiture rule did apply to the case. He then considered the background facts of the case which would be relevant to the decision whether to modify the forfeiture rule. Mr Challen had not made a will, so the majority of his estate would have passed automatically to Mrs Challen on his death, but for the forfeiture rule. The judge pointed out that the effect of the forfeiture rule in the present case would be that Mrs Challen’s sons would inherit the estate of the deceased. That would amount to a chargeable transfer which would result in a significant amount of inheritance tax being paid.
The judge made clear that the facts were “extraordinary, tragic, and, one would hope, rare”. He said that the case involved “the combination of a submissive personality on whom coercive control worked, a man prepared to use that coercive control, a lack of friends or other sources of assistance, an enormous dependency upon him by the claimant, and significant psychiatric illness”. He concluded that Mr Challen had “undoubtedly contributed significantly to the circumstances in which he died” because without his “appalling behaviour over so many years”, Mrs Challen would not have killed him.
The judge concluded that he was satisfied that the justice of the case required that he should disapply the forfeiture rule to the facts of the case. He did however warn that his ruling did not mean that any person suffering from the effects of coercive control who goes on to kill their abuser should expect to also have the forfeiture rule disapplied. Every case must be decided on its own merits and the judge emphasised that the facts of this case were so extraordinary that he would not expect them easily to be replicated in another case.
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