There was something unseemly about the fact that Eamonn Lillis walked away from Wheatfield Prison last April €1.3m richer after serving five years of a seven-year sentence for killing his wife, Celine Cawley, at their home in Howth, north Dublin, in December 2008.
Lillis, who bashed Celine with a brick and blamed it on an intruder, is now one of the country’s wealthiest ex-convicts.
While in prison, he thwarted an attempt by Celine’s family’s to ensure that the couple’s daughter, Georgia, inherit all her wealth rather than see him profit from her death.
It is a principle of Irish public policy that nobody should profit from their own wrongdoing. A notable exception to that general rule concerns the right of survivorship, which applies to joint tenancies, including a family home.
Under the 1965 Succession Act, nobody may inherit any part of the estate of a person he or she has murdered, attempted to murder, or killed by manslaughter.
But property held in joint tenancy does not form part of a victim’s estate and so is not included under the act.
That is likely to change under new legislation proposed by the Law Reform Commission that would prevent killers from benefiting from the life insurance policies, trusts or pensions of their victims.
The Report to Prevent Persons Benefiting from Committing Homicide would also prevent offenders found guilty of murder, attempted murder, or manslaughter, from benefiting from property held jointly with their victims.
The proposed legislation would allow the joint tenancy to be split evenly and then the court would have the discretion to disallow all or a portion of the 50% belonging to the offender.
It is, however, a very complex legal area and any new law will have to accord with property rights under the Constitution.
Even if all the recommendations made by the Law Reform Commission are implemented, there may still be circumstances where a killer might benefit from wrongdoing.
The Government would be wise to take note of the concerns voiced in this regard by Celine’s brother, Chris.
“I note with some concern that it is to be presumed that the victim holds at least half of the interest in the property,” he said in response to the commission’s report.
“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.”
While considering the issue, the concerns of the families of victims should be given due weight.
Insurance companies, too, may have a useful role to play by specifying in mortgage protection and life assurance contracts that no payment be made to a spouse killer on a policy taken out on the victim’s life.
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