It is high time that the Oireachtas acted to remedy the deficiencies in the Succession Act 1965 in relation to property which is held under a joint tenancy. Property which is held under a joint tenancy is subject to the rule of survivorship, meaning that the last surviving joint tenant becomes automatically entitled to the property absolutely. It is a “last man standing” rule. However, the rule of succession runs aground where one joint tenant is found to have unlawfully killed, or attempted to kill, another joint tenant.
The ensuing difficulties are born from the fact that at common law it is recognised that no person shall take advantage of, or accrue a benefit from, his own wrongdoing. The potential for conflict between the rule of survivorship and the rule that a person should not be unjustly enriched because of his own wrongful actions was fully realised in the Cawley v Lillis litigation.
Eamonn Lillis was convicted of the manslaughter of his wife, Celine Cawley. The property and related interests owned by Ms Cawley can be divided into two distinct categories: property which was owned solely by Ms Cawley and secondly, property which was held with her husband, Lillis, as joint tenants.In relation to the property held solely by Ms Cawley, the law, through section 120 of the Succession Act 1965, dealt sufficiently with the inheritability of this type of property.
Although Ms Cawley’s will bequeathed all of her solely owned property to her husband, the provisions of section 120 of Succession Act 1965 operated to bar Lillis from inheriting this property as he had been convicted of Ms Cawley’s manslaughter. But what of the second type of property: that held by Ms Cawley jointly, as a joint tenant, with Lillis? Should the rule of succession operate to allow him to take this property absolutely, thereby becoming unjustly enriched from his crime?