Monday 18 November 2019

Don't let killers profit on deaths of their victims - Celine Cawley family's campaign

Celine Cawley family's campaign puts spotlight on killers who benefit financially from crimes

Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

The campaign by Celine Cawley's family to stop killers like Eamonn Lillis from profiting from their crimes has focussed unprecedented attention on a long overlooked gap in the law that has caused heartache for many families.

The Law Reform Commission will report in July on changing the law to stop killers like Eamonn Lillis from profiting from their crimes, following a campaign by Celine Cawley's family. Meanwhile an independent senator, Feargal Quinn, has tabled his own proposals, which were debated in the Seanad last month. It is a significant advance for Ms Cawley's sister, Susanna, and brother, Chris, who first launched a lonely High Court battle in 2010, months after Lillis was convicted of manslaughter.

They took the case not for their own benefit but, as executors of their sister's will, to secure the financial future of Ms Cawley's daughter, Georgia, the sole heir to her estate. Under Irish succession law, Lillis could not inherit his dead wife's estate because he had killed her. But, as the Cawleys discovered, the law did not cover the assets and properties that Lillis jointly owned with his wife.

Not only was Lillis claiming entitlement to his own share of the jointly held properties, but to his dead wife's share of those properties too. The three properties at stake, included the family home in Howth, a holiday home in France and an apartment.

Under the 1965 Succession Act, killers are not entitled to inherit any part of the estate of the person they have murdered, attempted to murder or killed. But this rule does not apply to properties or assets that they jointly owned. In such cases, where one "joint tenant" kills the other, the victim's share automatically passes to the surviving owner.

Chris and Susanna Cawley went to the High Court to challenge Lillis' claim to any of the properties, as he had killed her. The High Court ruled a year later that Lillis was entitled to his 50pc share but ordered that his wife's half should be held in trust for their daughter Georgia.

In her judgement, Ms Justice Laffoy highlighted the absence of legislation in the area. The Department of Justice said it was reviewing the gap in the law but nothing was done until last November when the Law Reform Commission announced that it was looking at succession law and spousal homicides.

The Lillis case is not an isolated one. Other convicted killers such as Brian Kearney, who murdered his wife Siobhan, and Joe O'Reilly, who murdered his wife Rachel, also inherited their share of the family properties. In Kearney's case, he was also entitled to half the proceeds of a hotel in Majorca which was run his late wife.

The Law Reform Commission is looking at whether judges should have the discretion to decide a killer's entitlement to property jointly held with the victim, such as in domestic violence cases.

Senator Quinn was so struck by what he called the injustice of the situation that he engaged legal experts to help him draft a Bill.

"Where one joint tenant kills another, the killer gets to keep his or her share in a jointly owned property. This is deeply unjust," he told the Seanad.

His Succession (Amendment) Bill 2015 proposes that where one joint tenant kills another, not only would the offender have no entitlement to the victim's share of the property, he/she won't be entitled to avail of his or her own share in the property either.

The Attorney-General has raised constitutional concerns over his Bill and the Minister for Justice is now waiting for the Law Reform Commission's recommendations. Speaking last year, the Cawley family hope that securing a change the law - whenever that might be - will be Celine's legacy

Sunday Independent

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