Sunday 8 December 2019

'Complete agony' of family fighting Lillis over €4m in assets

Cawleys back changes to law as wife-killer to be freed a millionaire

Celine Cawley in one of the last photos taken before her death
Family: Celine Cawley's sister Susanna, sister-in-law Sorcha, her brother Chris and her daughter Georgia during a court hearing related to the case.
The house in Howth where Celine was killed
Dearbhail McDonald

Dearbhail McDonald

THE family of Celine Cawley, the woman bludgeoned to death by her husband Eamonn Lillis, have spoken of their “complete agony” pursuing the killer to secure daughter Georgia’s financial future.

Lillis (57) will be released from prison early next year with more than €1m in assets, despite being found guilty of his wife’s manslaughter.

The couple’s estate was once valued at €4m, but the Cawley family were engaged in a five-year legal battle to prevent the killer from profiting from the joint properties they owned.

The Irish Independent has learned almost €200,000 was spent on legal fees pursuing Lillis in the civil courts.

Celine Cawley in one of the last photos taken before her death
Celine Cawley in one of the last photos taken before her death

Last night, Ms Cawley’s brother, Chris, said the battle – which Lillis fought in Ireland and France – was “distress upon distress”.

Mr Cawley was speaking as the Law Reform Commission today launches an Issues Paper on succession law and spousal homicides.

Family: Celine Cawley's sister Susanna, sister-in-law Sorcha, her brother Chris and her daughter Georgia during a court hearing related to the case.
Family: Celine Cawley's sister Susanna, sister-in-law Sorcha, her brother Chris and her daughter Georgia during a court hearing related to the case.

Read more: Killers should not profit from spouses' deaths

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, was killed by blows to the head with a brick.

The house in Howth where Celine was killed
The house in Howth where Celine was killed

Following a trial at the Central Criminal Court in 2010, Lillis was sentenced to six years and 11 months.

However, the Cawley family's trauma did not end there as Lillis - who left a paltry €600 for his daughter Georgia as he was sent to jail - fought a lengthy legal battle in Ireland and France to secure his share in properties jointly held by him and his wife.

Under the 1965 Succession Act, killers can not normally inherit any part of the estate of the person they have murdered, attempted to murder or killed in circumstances amounting to murder.

But where a killer has held a joint tenancy with the deceased, the full interest automatically passes to the surviving joint owner and the property does not become part of the dead person's estate, even if the surviving owner killed their joint tenant.

In 2011, the High Court ruled that the property held in a joint tenancy between Lillis and his wife did not form part of her estate.

But Ms Justice Mary Laffoy (now a Supreme Court judge) ruled that Ms Cawley's share in the property should be held on trust for their daughter Georgia.

In her ruling, Judge Laffoy called for clarity in the law. "The issues raised in these proceedings demonstrate 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," said Judge Laffoy.

The Cawley family are now backing potential changes to the law which would stop spousal killers from making financial gains under existing survivorship laws where they jointly own properties.

"Celine would be thrilled with this," said Chris Cawley, adding that the family will be making a submission in response to the Commission's Issues paper on succession law.

"After six years of distress and a very harrowing experience, this would be a very small lining in a very big, dark cloud," said the executor of Ms Cawley's will.

He said that the family did "what it had to do" to secure Georgia's future, adding that Lillis made the situation "as difficult as possible" for them.

The four-year civil battle has exposed stark differences between the Irish and French legal systems. It took almost five years, at a cost of more than €180,000 in legal fees, to determine what should happen to the joint assets owned by the couple. In comparison, it took just over a year to pursue a similar case in France at a cost of less than €20,000.

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.

Last night Chris Cawley said that the family strongly support Judge Laffoy's calls for legal clarity and would make a submission to the LRC in support of laws denying spousal killers from profiting from their crimes.

Read more: Lillis affair and his litany of lies were exposed in court

"We would welcome any reform that would advantage the vulnerable position which primarily affects women in our society," said the businessman, who was joint administrator of his sister's estate.

On March 24, 2010, Lillis acknowledged that he had no entitlement to his late wife's assets that were held in her own name.

But there were a number of joint assets including the former family home at Rowan Hill that were held in both Lillis and Celine Cawley's names

Lillis secured around €600,000 from the liquidation of the couple's business, a pension valued at some €450,000 and more than €500,000 from property transactions.

The LRC says it is asking whether the legal title should pass to killers or be held on trust for the victim's estate. It is also asking whether the current law banning killers from profiting from their crimes should be extended to other forms of homicide.

It is also seeking responses on where killers should pay the legal costs in forfeiture cases and whether a criminal conviction should be admissable in a subsequent civil case on unworthiness.

Irish Independent

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