'Celine's law' to prevent killers of their spouses from profiting
Published 24/07/2015 | 02:30
Perpetrators who commit murder, attempted murder or manslaughter, could see their share of co-owned assets such as property, pensions, shares, life insurance and State benefits reduced significantly - and potentially to zero - by a court depending on the circumstances of the killing.
But killers could also still hold on to half of the family home and other joint assets shared with the spouse or partner they killed under new laws recommended by the Law Reform Commission.
The Commission report, published today, was compiled after a five-year legal battle waged between the family of businesswoman Celine Cawley and her husband Eamon Lillis over the mother-of-one's estate.
Celine Cawley (46) died at her family home in Howth on 15 December, 2008. The high-profile businesswoman, who ran a successful TV production company with her husband, was killed by blows to the head with a brick.
Lillis was released from prison early this year with more than €1m in assets, despite being found guilty of his wife's manslaughter.
In 2011, High (now Supreme) Court judge Ms Justice Mary Laffoy ruled that the couple's family home in Howth was held in a joint tenancy between Lillis and his wife and did not form part of her estate.
Mr Lillis retained his half of their joint property whilst the remainder was held in constructive trust for the couple's now adult daughter Georgia.But in France a judge ruled that Lillis was "unfit" to inherit an €800,000 property he co-owned with his wife in Biarritz, because he had killed her.
Under the proposed laws, it will be presumed that the victim's estate will hold at least half of the joint assets.
But the offender could be left with a lot less than half by a judges who can take into account a range of factors including if there is a long history of domestic violence leading up to the death.
Last night Ms Cawley's brother Chris Cawley welcomed the Commission's recommendation for comprehensive laws to prevent a person financially benefiting from committing murder, attempted murder or manslaughter.
But the businessman said that they do not go far enough.
"In other countries, if you kill someone, you lose all interest in the joint assets and for obvious reasons," said Mr Cawley.
He added that the "horror" of what he described as "toxic co-dependence between a killer and the victims' relatives (including their children) in the aftermath of a killing was something that should not be visited on families.
Mr Cawley told the Irish Independent that he hopes that it becomes the normal practice that 100pc of the joint assets go to the victim's estate unless there are exceptional circumstances.
The vast majority of married couples and civil partners co-own property as a joint tenancy. This ensures the survivor becomes the full legal owner after their partner's death without having to go through probate or pay death duties.
But this has created difficulties where the survivor of the joint tenancy assets is the killer.
Only two states in the US have adopted the so called "flayer rule" - where all of a killer's assets are forfeited - instead of a "half share" or split rule.
Legal experts fear that any attempt to deprive a killer of their pre- existing private property rights through automatic confiscation of assets would probably be unconstitutional, potentially disproportionate and offend the principle that an offender is penalised through the sentenced imposed by the criminal law.
The Commission said that the majority of submissions it received supported the thrust of the outcome in the Cawley case, which entitled the dead woman's estate to a half share of the property.
However Senator Feargal Quinn, who moved a draft bill in the Seanad last March providing for automatic confiscation of assets in cases of homicide, said the Commission missed an opportunity to right a very grave wrong in our criminal justice system.
"Under the current law, and under the Commission's proposal, the offender gets to walk away with his share in the property. This is wrong on any assessment, this is a warped version of justice," said Senator Quinn.
The senator said he believed the Commission had taken an overly conservative approach.
"This will lead to absurd situations where a killer retains a share in the family home, even after he or she has been found guilty of killing his or her spouse," he said.
Since 1996, there have been 206 women unlawfully killed in Ireland, with more than six out of 10 killed in their own homes.
According to Women's Aid, which supports victims of domestic violence, more than half of the women in cases resolved by the criminal justice system were murdered by a partner or ex-partner.