It would seem entirely fair that someone who kills another cannot profit financially from their victim's death by then benefitting from their estate. The forfeiture rule prevents this from happening – however, the same does not currently exist in cases of suicide linked to domestic abuse. With an increasing focus by the government and the press on domestic abuse, is it time to expand the forfeiture principle, to ensure that abusers similarly cannot profit from the death of their victims as a result of their abuse?
The current position
In contrast with the treatment of an offender convicted of killing, currently, if a victim of domestic abuse takes their own life as a result of abuse, the law in England and Wales does not prohibit the perpetrator of that abuse from benefitting from their victim's death in accordance with the terms of the victim's Will or (in the absence of a Will) under the rules of intestacy – even if the victim took their own life due to the impact of domestic abuse on their mental health.
Recently, this distinction has been put under scrutiny. The Labour MP for Vauxhall in South London, Florence Eshalomi, has called for legal reform to prevent an abuser from being allowed to benefit, following concern expressed by her constituents to raise and pursue the issue further. This month she will meet with the Prime Minister to discuss the matter. The question now, is how the law can (and whether it should) prevent an abuser from benefitting from a victim's suicide which was linked to domestic abuse.
The need for reform
Provisional figures from the ONS for January to September 2021, published in December 2021, show there were 3,826 deaths caused by suicide in England alone. However, it is difficult to assess the circumstances and reasons behind each death. Most of these deaths would be the subject of a coroner's inquest who would make a finding – indeed, in one of the cases Florence Eshalomi MP was alerted to the coroner investigating the death deemed that the victim, "took her own life while suffering anxiety precipitated by a domestic violence incident".
SafeLives, a domestic abuse charity, reports that every day almost 30 women in England and Wales attempt suicide as a result of domestic abuse, with 3 women taking their own lives each week.
These numbers put into stark focus the undeniable link between domestic abuse and suicide of victims. While progress has been made with reforms to the law around domestic abuse, including the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 which came into effect on 30 April 2021, the numbers of victims of abuse who choose to take their own life as a consequence of abuse suffered remains devastatingly high. Further, it is not widely known that an abuser may still stand to inherit under a Will or pursuant to the intestacy rules despite their behaviour within the relationship. It is under these tragic circumstances that further reform has rightly been called for.
Perpetrators of domestic abuse, by the nature of the crime, will either be a member of the victim's family (e.g. a husband, child or other relative) or will have a close personal relationship with the victim. These types of relationships therefore mean that it is much more likely a perpetrator would be a beneficiary (either under a Will or the intestacy rules) of the victim's estate.
Current law on forfeiture
The Courts do have discretion to make an order modifying the effect of the forfeiture rule where the Court considers it necessary to achieve a just outcome in the particular circumstances of the case (including by reference to the conduct of the offender and of the deceased person). For example, while someone who is convicted of murder should not benefit from the killing, those convicted of another offence (e.g. manslaughter or assisting/encouraging suicide) may, if the Court considers that the particular facts of the case require the forfeiture rule to be modified.
Given previous governments' willingness to create a more flexible approach to inheritance, a more simple solution might be to allow additional categories of death to be caught by the forfeiture rule.
If the Prime Minister responds favourably to calls for reform in this area, it may be that the issue of evidencing that a suicide is linked to domestic abuse will be put under greater scrutiny. Previous convictions, active proceedings and coroners’ findings may be given more weight, as well as louder calls for the need to close 'loopholes' in the law.
We anticipate that two of the biggest concerns will be where to draw the line, and how to evidence the cause of a suicide. For the first issue, it may be prudent to only extend the proposed law to people who have been convicted of abuse, rather than those who have been accused – especially considering the bedrock of our criminal justice system is 'innocent, until proven guilty'. This, however, does leave open legitimate concerns about the low rates of victim reporting and convictions. The second issue is the risk of placing a too onerous a burden on the victim's family to prove a link between their suicide and domestic abuse, or placing a reliance on a coroner's verdict who may not have sufficient evidence (e.g. reports from psychologists, eye-witness accounts, a suicide note).
Legal reform is likely going to take time to navigate. However, reform itself will not address the underlying problem: the abuse. Domestic abuse charities offer vital advice and support to survivors of domestic abuse, and refuges can offer a safe environment away from the perpetrator of the abuse. Better access to these resources and funding ought to be priorities, particularly given the number of domestic abuse cases highlighted by the ONS figures, to prevent perpetrators benefitting from their actions under such tragic circumstances.
It remains to be seen how this issue will unfold and if there will be reform – but what is certain is that the rising tide of domestic abuse leaves in its wake a trail of devastation, and there remains a need for further protection for victims and their families from perpetrators. Subject to finalising the details, extending the forfeiture rule is one such protection.
For further information about where and how to access support for survivors of abuse, please visit the following:
- Women's Aid – who offer a live chat, survivor's handbook, a forum and other support;
- Men's Advice Line – who have a free helpline for male survivors of domestic abuse;
- Hestia – who provide support for those living in London and the South East of England; and
- Refuge – who offer a 24 hour free and confidential helpline and other support.