Proposed law on killers’ assets risks being struck down - experts

Bill preventing killers benefiting from victims’ estate may be deemed unconstitutional

Celine Cawley, who was killed by her husband Eamonn Lillis. Photograph: Eric Luke

Celine Cawley, who was killed by her husband Eamonn Lillis. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

A proposed new law to block killers from inheriting assets from the estate of their victim “goes too far in stripping them of property and risks being struck down as unconstitutional”, an Oireachtas committee will hear onWednesday.

The Bill, tabled by Fianna Fáil TD Jim O’Callaghan and known informally as Celine’s Law, will come before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality on Wednesday morning.

The family of Celine Cawley, who was killed by her husband Eamonn Lillis in their home in Howth, Co Dublin, have called for legal reforms that would prevent those who kill their partners retaining joint assets afterwards. The issue has also been highlighted more recently by the family of Clodagh Hawe, who, with her three sons, was murdered by her husband in their Co Cavan home.

UCC professor John Mee, who has taught on land law, succession and trusts for the past 30 years, is expected to tell the committee that “if the time is not taken to get this Bill right, it will make the current legal position worse rather than better”, according to his opening statement.

‘Positive aspects’

“The Bill has many positive aspects but also needs significant improvement in a number of areas; in some respects it is too generous to killers, and in others it goes too far in stripping them of property and risks being struck down as unconstitutional. There are also various problems with the drafting that could lead to unintended consequences,” he is expected to say.

It would, absurdly, allow a person who hired a hitman to kill his spouse to benefit from the victim’s will

He will point towards provisions in the Bill which state that a person who aids or abets a murder will not be subjected to the new law.

“No other common law jurisdiction draws the distinction proposed by the Bill, and it would, absurdly, allow a person who hired a hitman to kill his spouse to benefit from the victim’s will,” Mr Mee says.

He is also expected to point out potential risks to the constitutionality of the Bill.

‘Additional punishment’

“The Law Reform Commission recognised that depriving a killer of his own property would amount to imposing an additional punishment for a crime and would be unconstitutional. It would be an arbitrary attack on property rights to strip a killer of his pre-existing property rights in the context of jointly held assets only, while not operating a forfeiture principle in respect of other assets,” the opening statement says.

Legislative reform is necessary, Mr Mee says. “This would help the families of victims by reducing the need for litigation and, therefore, reducing legal expenses and avoiding delay.”

Mr O’Callaghan has said that the cases of Clodagh Hawe and Celine Cawley have shown the Government must take steps immediately to reform the law and called for the legislation be prioritised.