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'Celine's law' proposals to prevent killers profiting don't go far enough, says family

A new report by the Law Reform Commission is aimed at closing a loophole highlighted by the Eamonn Lillis case.

First published at 1.40pm

A CHANGE TO the law is being proposed that would prevent a person guilty of murder or manslaughter from benefitting financially from the victim’s death – including through a life insurance policy, pensions or the family home.

The report by the Law Reform Commission is aimed at closing the loophole highlighted by the case of Eamonn Lillis.

After being convicted of manslaughter, Lillis spent five years and two months in prison for killing his wife Celine Cawley in 2008 – walking free in April of this year.

Following his conviction the Cawley family took action to prevent him from taking ownership of the home he jointly owned with his wife in Howth, north Dublin.

Chris Cawley, Ms Cawley’s brother, has said there are a lot of positives in the report, but raised concern about one aspect of their recommendations.

28/1/2010 Eamonn Lillis Court Cases Eamonn Lillis Source: /Photocall Ireland

The law as it stands…

Under the Succession Act 1965, a person may not ordinarily inherit any part of the estate of a person he or she has murdered, attempted to murder or killed by manslaughter.

The Law Reform Commission notes:

“Certain difficulties connected with this provision have recently come to light, especially in the context of spousal homicides where the offender and the victim happened to be joint owners of a piece of property such as the family home.”

Because property held in a joint tenancy does not form part of the estate of a deceased person, including a homicide victim, the rule in the Succession Act 1965 does not apply.

The Commission recommends “comprehensive legislative reform is required” to ensure a person is prevented from benefitting from their wrongdoing.

The Law Reform Commission says it is recommending that the current law be reformed, “including where it applies to a joint tenant who kills his or her spouse who was also a joint tenant at the time of death, which arose in the High Court in 2011 in Cawley v Lillis.

What is joint tenancy?

A joint tenancy is a type of co-ownership of property, often arranged between spouses: where one of the spouses dies, the entire interest in the property automatically passes to the surviving joint owner, who becomes full owner.

The property held in a joint tenancy does not become part of the deceased joint owner’s estate, because ownership automatically transfers to the surviving co-owner.

This legal consequence, called the right of survivorship, applies even where, as in Cawley v Lillis, the surviving co-owner has killed his or her spouse.

In the Lillis case, the High Court decided that under the current law the interest of the deceased should be held by the surviving spouse – the killer – in trust for the deceased’s daughter. Justice Mary Laffoy also recommended the law in the area should be reviewed.

This morning’s report recommends the following in cases involving joint tenancy:

“…the offender should be precluded from obtaining the benefit of the right of survivorship; that the legal and beneficial interests in the property held under the joint tenancy between the victim and the offender should be deemed severed from the date when any homicide offence was committed; and that it is to be presumed (subject to the next recommendation) that the victim holds at least half of the interest in the property.
The Cawley family response
In a statement provided to Morning Ireland, Chris Cawley thanked the Law Reform Commission, and noted the positive aspects of their recommendations.
He said he noted “with concern” that it was to be presumed the victim holds at least half of the interest in the property.

“I understand that the Law Reform Commission envisage this concern to be addressed by recommending that the actual amount and value to be held by the offender may be decided by a court to be at such a level as the court considers just and equitable.

“However, there is the potential that the killer could still walk away with half his share of jointly held property.”

He said he hoped the Department of Justice would address the issue when drafting their legislation.

More: When should someone who kills their spouse be allowed to inherit their property?

Read: Eamonn Lillis to walk free

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