Bid to restrict spouse killers’ property rights

Legal issues raised by high-profile cases involving famous spouse killers Eamonn Lillis and Catherine Nevin have prompted an investigation by the State’s law review body.

The Law Reform Commission is seeking submissions on further restrictions on the rights of killers to inherit properties and assets held by their victims.

Under the Succession Act 1965, a person should not be able to inherit any part of the estate of a person whom she or he has murdered; attempted to murder; or killed.

The LRC said that “certain difficulties” connected with this provision had recently come to light in spousal homicides where the killer and the deceased were joint owners of property, such as the family home.

This issue had specifically arisen in a 2011 case involving Eamonn Lillis, who killed his wife, Celine Cawley, at their home in Howth, north Dublin, in December 2008.

He was sentenced to six years and 11 months jail in 2010 for the manslaughter.

Generally under the law, a killer should not inherit a share in the estate of his or her victim. But where they are joint owners, and one of them dies, the property automatically passes to the surviving joint owner.

Ms Cawley’s brother, Chris, and sister, Susanna, along with Ms Cawley’s and Mr Lillis’s daughter Georgia, took a High Court action challenging his right to any share of the joint assets.

Mr Lillis argued he had vested interests in the Howth property before his wife’s death and these were property rights protected by the Constitution.

Ms Justice Mary Laffoy said that “in the absence of legislation” the court had “no power or jurisdiction” to interfere with the defendant’s rights.

A second argument put forward by the plaintiffs was that the joint tenancy was severed with the homicide, but the court said it could not make that judgement.

Ms Justice Laffoy came up with a novel solution after the defendant, at a late stage, conceded that he would hold his wife’s share of the property in a trust for himself and the estate of the deceased. The judge added that “ideally, there should be legislation in place” which prescribes the destination of such properties.

A related issue being examined by the LRC is whether a criminal conviction is admissible in subsequent civil proceedings. This arose in a 2013 case taken by the siblings of Tom Nevin, who was murdered by his wife Catherine at their pub, Jack White’ Inn, Co Wicklow, in March 1996.


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