Editorial: 'Succession law and homicidal heirs'
Nobody, as ancient legal maxim proclaims, may profit from his or her wrongful conduct. The justice of this principle is self-evident. It applies in many different circumstances. In relation to succession to property on death, natural justice dictates that it must also disentitle a killer from benefiting economically as a result of the death of the person killed.
T It is well-settled law in almost all legal systems worldwide that a killer should not be entitled to take any benefit under a victim's will, or if no will disposes effectively of all of a victim's estate, on a victim's intestacy. As an English court said in 1914, "no man shall slay his benefactor and thereby take his bounty". In Ireland, however, the law is behind on this issue. Greater urgency must be made to rectify the matter.
The case of the murder of Clodagh Hawe and her children, Liam, Niall and Ryan, by husband and father Alan Hawe has deeply disturbed the nation. Nobody could fail to be moved by the emotion and courage shown in public interviews by Clodagh's mother and sister, Mary Coll and Jacqueline Connolly.
In the Sunday Independent today, Jacqueline further elaborates on the terrible circumstances in which that family now finds itself. She gives powerful testimony, from the family's perspective, as to how the 'system' as it currently exists has failed a family in most desperate need. The Justice Minister, Charlie Flanagan, has rightfully acknowledged that difficulty and pain, as no doubt will the Garda Commissioner, Drew Harris, when he meets the family this week. All effort must now be made to facilitate the Coll family to find answers to the questions it is asking on behalf of a deeply concerned society.
However, if the general principle is well settled, that a killer is not entitled to take any benefit under a victim's will or from his estate, precisely how it should be applied in particular circumstances is often uncertain. This is a complex area. In the case of the murder of Clodagh, Liam, Niall and Ryan, it is doubly so because their killer subsequently took his own life. He died by suicide, it must also be pointed out, after he appears to have calmly sat down at a computer and arranged his financial affairs against the benefit of the Coll family. The cold calculation of this act continues to astound.
That said, the general law in this area must be carefully considered. There are issues which may not immediately come to mind. To give three examples, how would such a law relate to killing by a negligent act or omission, assisted suicides and "mercy killings" or an abused woman who kills her abuser, perhaps in an act of self-defence?
As abhorrent as it may seem to many, care must also be taken to ensure that the principle that a killer may not benefit as a result of a victim's death is not extended to deprive a killer of what was his or hers before and apart from a killing.
There is currently legislation before Dail Eireann, prepared by Fianna Fail, which seeks to deal with this complex area. Mr Flanagan has said that, in general, the Government accepts the thrust or intention behind the proposed legislation, but has pointed to unintended consequences within the proposal.
The Dail would do well to extend some measure of justice to the Coll family by resolving these issues with due care but more urgency.