The recent case of Macmillan Cancer Support v Hayes & Another  saw a tragic set of circumstances involving a loving husband and wife, Peter and Sheila. Peter and Sheila were in their 80’s and had been married for decades. They had no children together but were considered to be entirely devoted to each other. As they aged, their health deteriorated. Sheila was suffering from advanced dementia and Peter had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and heart problems; he could no longer look after Sheila and she was moved into residential care. Peter was devastated by the fact he could no longer care for his wife.
On 18 April 2015, Peter collected Sheila from her nursing home and promised to return her there the following day. He took her to their favourite restaurant before taking her to the home they had shared. That evening, Peter heavily sedated Sheila before suffocating her. He then took his own life. Prior to these events, Peter wrote a note to the coroner providing the reasoning behind his actions. He explained that he and Sheila had discussed in the past that should they no longer be able to live their lives together, they should end them together while they still had control. The case was therefore considered an assisted suicide, but the result of this was that Sheila’s killing was unlawful.
Sheila’s Will left the entirety of her estate to Peter should he survive her. If he did not survive her, Sheila’s estate was to go to a mixture of friends, relatives and charities. However it was clear that Peter did survive Sheila, albeit briefly. The terms of Peter’s Will largely mirrored Sheila’s.
There was however, a potential obstruction preventing Sheila’s estate passing to Peter’s. The forfeiture rule states that a person who has unlawfully killed another cannot benefit from the victim’s estate. Regardless of the circumstances, it is clear this rule therefore applies to Peter and Sheila’s case. Whilst this may seem like a fair and simple rule, there are circumstances where such inflexibility in this area of law creates moral and practical difficulties. The Court considered that the circumstances in this case were an example where flexibility may be required.
Since 1982, there has been a way in which the Courts can modify the forfeiture rule. The Forfeiture Act 1982 (‘the Act’) gives the Court the power to modify the effect of the forfeiture rule where, in the circumstances, 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 the effect of the rule to be so modified.” This provision does not apply to those convicted of murder, but it will apply to lesser offences such as manslaughter.
If the forfeiture rule was to be strictly applied in this case, Sheila would have been considered to have died intestate (without a Will) and her estate would have passed to distant relatives from Australia. Macmillan Cancer Support, one of the named charities in both Sheila’s and Peter’s Wills, therefore brought a claim for relief from forfeiture to allow them to benefit via Peter’s Will. In considering this claim, the Court looked at the wider circumstances of the case. The Court ultimately chose to exercise their powers to modify the forfeiture rule by means of the Act and allow Sheila’s estate to be passed to Peter. The result of this was that Sheila’s estate was administered in accordance with the terms of Peter’s Will (which ultimately mirrored her own wishes).
This tragic case highlighted the fine detail of UK succession law as well as illustrating the fact that the Courts are often required to take a flexible approach in order to bring about a fair and just outcome. Cases such as this are extremely rare; however it is important the Courts have this discretion in order to ensure that such a tragedy does not result in any further hardship and suffering.