Executive summary - The forfeiture rule

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The forfeiture rule

On 29 October 2013, the Attorney-General asked the Victorian Law Reform Commission to review the common law rule of forfeiture. The forfeiture rule prevents a person who has unlawfully killed another from inheriting from their victim or acquiring another financial benefit from the death. It is an unwritten rule of public policy enforced by the courts. It has no statutory basis yet overrides the words of a will, entitlements provided in legislation, and legally binding agreements to which the deceased person was a party.

The rule applies where the court is satisfied, in civil proceedings, that the person was responsible for an unlawful killing. A person acquitted in criminal proceedings, or not prosecuted for a criminal offence at all, may still be precluded from obtaining a benefit.1 The only exception in Victoria is where the person is not guilty because of mental impairment.2

Emerging in the late 19th century from common law doctrines that stripped murderers and other felons of their property, the rule remains relevant today.3 It conveys the community’s strongest condemnation of the act of unlawfully taking another human life.

The rule is not applied often, as it is directed to circumstances where the person responsible for the death stands to benefit from the deceased person’s estate or otherwise as a result of their close relationship with the deceased person. However, of the 85 homicides in Victoria last year, 27 (33 per cent) were committed by a family member.4 It is likely that in many of these cases the forfeiture rule prevented the person responsible from obtaining a benefit.5

Need for reform

Although the public policy is sound, the rule requires reform for two reasons: clarity and fairness. The scope of the rule as it applies in Victoria is unclear. There is no doubt that it applies to murder, but the reach of the rule to all forms of unlawful killing, including inadvertent and involuntary acts, is unsettled. Where it does apply, the effect that the rule has on the subsequent distribution of forfeited benefits is uncertain.

The rule can operate unfairly because it is applied inflexibly and without regard to the moral culpability of the person responsible for the unlawful killing. This is at odds with changes in community attitudes, as reflected in the greater range of criminal offences and sentence options today compared to when the rule was first articulated.

The application of the forfeiture rule can also have unfair consequences for third parties as it can affect their potential rights to take a forfeited benefit. Those affected may include alternative beneficiaries named in a will, other beneficiaries of the deceased person’s estate, the innocent descendants of the unlawful killer, and any person who co-owns property with the unlawful killer and the deceased person as joint tenants.

Legislative responses in other jurisdictions

Responding to similar concerns, other jurisdictions have introduced legislation to replace or augment the operation of the common law rule. New Zealand’s Succession (Homicide) Act 2007 (NZ) (‘the NZ Act’) codifies the rule. It sets out the homicides to which the rule applies, excises those to which it does not apply, and specifies its effect on the distribution of the benefits to which the person would have been entitled.

The United Kingdom has taken a minimalist approach. The Forfeiture Act 1982 (UK) (‘the UK Act’) leaves the scope and effect of the rule at common law intact, but gives the court a discretion to modify its effect if required by the justice of the case. The Australian Capital Territory and New South Wales subsequently introduced legislation that is closely modelled on the UK Act: the Forfeiture Act 1991 (ACT) (‘the ACT Act’) and the Forfeiture Act 1995 (NSW) (‘the NSW Act’).
The key difference between the three statutes is that the NSW Act was amended in 2005 to give the court a discretion to apply the rule to a person who has been found not guilty by reason of mental illness.

There have been no recorded applications under the ACT Act to modify the effect of the rule. Five such applications have been made under the NSW Act, and a further three to apply the rule to a person found not guilty of an unlawful killing because of a mental illness. All applications under the NSW Act have been successful. However, most cases concerning the forfeiture rule are not made under the Forfeiture Act but involve applications seeking clarification of the effect of the rule and a determination as to where the offender’s interest is to be redirected.

Proposed Forfeiture Act

The Commission released a consultation paper and sought submissions on possible options for reform, based on the approaches illustrated in the NZ, UK, ACT and NSW Acts. A recurring theme in submissions and consultations was that legislative reform is needed, to provide certainty about the scope and effect of the rule and to overcome concerns about the lack of regard to the offender’s moral culpability.

The Commission concluded that Victoria should introduce a Forfeiture Act that draws both from the reforms in New Zealand that codified the rule in order to create greater certainty and from the reforms in New South Wales and elsewhere that introduced a discretion to ensure greater fairness in the application of the rule. The proposed Forfeiture Act would specify the unlawful killings to which the rule applies and, either directly or by consequential amendment to other legislation, clarify its effect. To overcome concerns about the harsh effects of the rule, certain offences would be excluded from its operation. In addition, the court would have a discretion, on application, to modify the effect of the rule on a case-by-case basis where required by the justice of the case.

Scope of the rule

The determining factor for the Commission in defining the scope of the rule for the purposes of the proposed Forfeiture Act is the moral culpability of the person responsible for the unlawful killing. For clarity, the Commission recommends establishing a nexus between the unlawful killings to which the rule applies and murder and other indictable homicide offences under the Crimes Act 1958 (Vic).

In the interests of justice, the Commission recommends excluding from the scope of the rule a small number of homicide offences where any perpetrator is likely to be considered to have low moral culpability and the offence does not warrant a bar on the offender taking a benefit from
the deceased person. These are:

  • dangerous driving causing death
  • manslaughter pursuant to a suicide pact with the deceased person or aiding or abetting a suicide pursuant to such a pact
  • infanticide.

These offences were identified in submissions and consultations and have been excluded from the rule in other jurisdictions. Motor manslaughter is excluded at common law from the operation of the rule in the United Kingdom, and the NZ Act excludes killings caused by negligent acts or omissions, killings in pursuance of a suicide pact and infanticide. Given the nature of each of these offences and the low moral culpability of the offenders, any application to modify the effect of the rule in the circumstances of these offences would be likely to succeed. The exclusion of these offences will therefore create greater certainty and will reduce costs to the estate resulting from unnecessary litigation.

Judicial discretion

Under provisions similar to those in the UK, ACT and NSW Acts, the court in Victoria would have the discretion to modify the effect of the rule as required by the justice of the case. However, unlike the equivalent legislation, the proposed Forfeiture Act would expressly direct the court to consider the moral culpability of the person responsible for the unlawful killing and set out the evidence to which it should have regard.

An interested person—who could be the person responsible, the executor or administrator of the deceased person’s estate, or any other person who in the opinion of the court has an interest in the matter—would be able to make an application for a forfeiture modification order. The procedural details of the scheme would be modelled on the UK, ACT and NSW Acts.

Unlike the NSW Act, however, the proposed Forfeiture Act would not empower the court to extend the scope of the rule beyond the limits of the common law to persons who have been found not guilty by reason of mental impairment. The Commission does not consider that the rule should apply to a person who is not morally culpable for the unlawful killing.

Effect of the rule

The deceased person may leave a will that appoints the person who is later responsible for their death as executor. If the deceased person does not leave a will, the court usually appoints a person who is a major beneficiary to administer the estate. The Commission recommends that the proposed Forfeiture Act should clearly preclude a person who is responsible for the death from taking up an appointment either as executor or administrator. This would be achieved by deeming them to have died before the deceased person.

As the person’s responsibility for the death may not be established until some time after the death, the Commission also recommends that the court be given an express power to pass over a person who applies for probate or administration where there are reasonable grounds for believing that they committed an offence related to the deceased person’s death.

The effect of the rule on the entitlements of innocent beneficiaries and third parties would also be clarified. In some circumstances, another beneficiary under a will, or a descendant of an offender, may stand to gain a share of the estate but only if the offender dies before or shortly after the deceased person. Even though they are innocent of any wrongdoing, they are unable to take a share if the offender is alive but precluded by the rule from inheriting. This will be the case even if it is likely that the deceased person would have wanted them to inherit or if they were the deceased person’s closest living relative. To overcome this problem the Commission recommends deeming the offender to have predeceased the deceased person.

The Commission also recommends that a person who is responsible for the death of a person should be disentitled from making an application for family provision in order to obtain a larger share of the deceased person’s estate.

If the deceased person and the offender owned property as joint tenants, perhaps in conjunction with one or more other people, the rule has consequences for the beneficiaries of the deceased person and any innocent joint tenants. In normal circumstances, the deceased person’s interest in the property would vest in the surviving joint tenant or tenants in accordance with the law of survivorship. Where one surviving joint tenant is responsible for the death of another, courts have taken different approaches to determining the impact of the rule. The favoured approach has been to deem that the person responsible for the death holds the deceased person’s share on constructive trust for the deceased person’s estate. The Commission recommends that the interest of the person responsible for the death should be severed at the time of the death. This is clearer, simpler and fairer.

These clarifications would make it easier for an executor or administrator to distribute the deceased person’s estate and reduce the associated legal costs. If the outcome is unfair in any particular circumstances, the court could, on application, modify the effect of the rule.

The Commission has made 27 recommendations.

 

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