Lillis should not profit from killing his wife

THE bumbling Mr Bumble in Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist declared the law to be an ‘ass’. He wasn’t, of course, reflecting on Ireland’s inheritance laws but the comment is prescient in light of the fact that wife-killer Eamonn Lillis emerges from prison today a wealthy man.

Lillis should not profit from killing his wife

Lillis bludgeoned his wife Celine Cawley to death during a row at the family home in Howth, Co Dublin, in December 2008. The former television executive was jailed in February 2010 for seven years after being found guilty of manslaughter. He served just over five years at Wheatfield Prison as he was entitled to 25% remission on his sentence.

It is a well-established legal principle that nobody should be able to benefit from his or her wrongful conduct, especially a killer. In what is known as the ‘forfeiture rule’, that principle was put on a statutory footing here under the Succession Act, 1965.

The objective of the forfeiture rule is not to punish further a killer but to enforce a rule of public policy that a person should not benefit from that crime. However, that rule does not apply to property held in a joint tenancy as the deceased’s interest in the property ceases on his or her death.

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A person convicted of murder, attempted murder, or manslaughter who owned property with the deceased as joint tenant is entitled to full legal ownership under right of survivorship. The application of that right in such a context was considered by Ms Justice Mary Laffoy in the High Court when Lillis took a case in 2011 against his wife’s estate while in prison.

While the judge modified the killer’s right of survivorship, ordering that his wife’s share should be held in trust for their daughter, Georgia, the law as it stands would not allow her to declare his half of the estate forfeit.

That is why Lillis has now become one of Ireland’s wealthiest ex-convicts, profiting from his wife’s death to the tune of more than €1.3m.

That includes almost €500,000 from the sale of the family home and €358,505 after the television production company founded by his wife was liquidated. Lillis owes most of his wealth to his dead wife’s business acumen. Ms Cawley had built up Toytown Film Productions by the time he bashed her to death with a brick.

Lillis would be even wealthier if he had won a further legal battle in France but the laws there are clearly not as asinine as they are here. The couple co-owned a holiday home in Biarritz worth €800,000. A French judge ruled that Lillis was ‘unfit’ to inherit that property because of what he had done.

In the Irish case, Judge Laffoy expressed the view that “ideally, there should be legislation in place which prescribes the destination of co-owned property in the event of the unlawful killing of one of the co-owners by another co-owner”.

Any such legislation would, of course, have to comply with property rights under the Constitution but it should not be beyond the ability of the Government to ensure that Mr Bumble’s comment no longer applies here.

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