The facts of Macmillan Cancer Support v Christopher Hayes and Charles Long (2017) are tragic. Peter, aged 84, was found hanging in the hallway of his home and, in the sitting room, his wife, Sheila, aged 88, was found fully clothed lying peacefully in a reclining chair with no marks on her body or any indication which would suggest violence. On the table next to her was a typed letter addressed to the Coroner signed by Peter. The letter recorded that Peter and Sheila had discussed the future and concluded that, when their normal lives were over, it would be better for both to bring their lives to a close whilst still capable of so doing. It recorded that Peter had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and had a grossly enlarged aorta which could rupture at any time. He recorded that Sheila would be heavily sedated and then suffocated and that he would then hang himself.

Sheila had been diagnosed with dementia and Peter was devastated that he could not care for his wife and concerned that the care home in which she resided would not be able to give her the quality of care he had provided. It was concluded that Sheila was unable to give consent to taking her own life and, accordingly with assisted suicide not being lawful, the Coroner concluded that Sheila was unlawfully killed.

Sheila had made a Will dated 31 August 2007. The week before their death Peter made a Will on 10 April 2015. The primary beneficiaries from both Wills were a long list of charities, including Macmillan, and some of their friends.

Sheila’s Will left everything to her husband Peter if he survived her but, if not, to the charities. Peter’s Will similarly left everything to Sheila but, on the second death, to the charities.

On the facts, Peter had survived Sheila and therefore, in accordance with her Will, he inherited and the substitute beneficiaries would not inherit. However, as a result of the forfeiture rule which says that someone who unlawfully kills another cannot benefit from that person’s Will, Peter would not be permitted to inherit. Accordingly, it would be as if Sheila had died intestate and all her money would go to distant relatives. 

The Court was invited to disapply the forfeiture rule and, instead, apply the Forfeiture Act so that Sheila’s estate would pass to Peter under her Will and then to the charities under his Will.

Under the Forfeiture Act 1982, the Court was given power to modify the forfeiture rule.

The Court looked at the conduct of Peter and Sheila and a host of other material circumstances. These included the relationship between Peter and Sheila, the degree of moral culpability, the nature and gravity of the offence, the intention of the deceased, the size of the estate, the financial position of the offender, and the moral claims and wishes of those entitled to take the property on the application of the forfeiture rule where those entitled expressed no interest or wish to benefit. One important feature identified was that Peter and Sheila had no children whereas, in most cases, that had been before the Courts previously concerned with the legal and moral claims of children.

The Judge took the view that, in all the circumstances of this particular case, justice should permit Sheila’s wishes to be put into effect, albeit only achieved through her husband’s Will. Accordingly, in this case, the Judge was prepared to make an Order modifying the forfeiture rule and giving relief against forfeiture.