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It is one of the most fundamental principles of law that those who unlawfully take the lives of others cannot benefit from their victims’ deaths. In one case which illustrated the point, a mentally ill man who fatally beat his 87-year-old mother was prevented from inheriting her £150,000 estate.
The mother had devoted much of her life to looking after her son, who had never left home. However, as age caught up with her and the caring roles were reversed, her son could not cope. Over several months, he subjected her to assaults of increasing intensity, culminating in a fatal attack in which he broke her ribs and caused internal bleeding. She died in hospital about two weeks later.
The son was charged with murder but prosecutors eventually accepted his guilty plea to manslaughter in the light of his mental health problems. A judge accepted that he had not intended to kill or seriously injure his mother and he was ordered to be detained in hospital under the Mental Health Act 1983.
The mother’s entire estate would ordinarily have passed to her son and he asked the High Court to exercise its discretion so as to waive the forfeiture rule which would normally apply to him as his mother’s killer. In refusing the application, however, the Court found that he was plainly aware that his attacks on his mother were wrong and that he was thus culpable for her death.
The Court found that he had taken advantage of her frailty. He had tried to hide what was happening from social workers and had effectively bullied her into silence. His basic needs would be met by the state in hospital and justice demanded that he be excluded from the inheritance, which would instead pass to his cousin.