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Review of links between domestic abuse, suicide and inheritance laws

9 March 2022

In this article our head of family law Maeve O’Higgins explores links between domestic abuse and suicide, and related discussion concerning inheritance laws.

Florence Eshalomi, a Labour MP, is conducting a campaign for a change in the law to prevent partners who have been guilty of domestic abuse inheriting from their victims, in the event of their death by suicide, in line with  ”the Forfeiture Rule” in probate, which prevents someone who has been found guilty of causing the death of their ex-partner inheriting from their estate.

Florence discovered a lacuna in the present law when the son of one of her constituents in Vauxhall brought the case of his late mother to her attention. She tragically committed suicide in June 2021, at the age of 56, after becoming severely depressed and suffering from panic attacks following an incident of severe domestic violence perpetuated by her husband, whilst they were on holiday in France in August 2019. She separated from her husband and obtained a non-molestation order after the incident and he was subsequently found guilty of assaulting her in criminal proceedings. At her inquest in November 2021 the coroner found that her suicide had been linked to the domestic violence she had suffered at the hands of her second husband. However, despite this and the fact that his mother had tried to alter the terms of her will in which she had left everything to her husband (which attempts were ineffective for technical reasons,) rather than as she had intended her two sons inheriting, her husband inherited her entire estate, comprising a house she had owned before she had even met him, as well as her NHS pension (she had worked as a GP).

Florence has tried to persuade the government to commit to the introduction of legislation to change the law, to prevent an abuser benefiting from the estate of his former partner after she has committed suicide. Although her representations have been received sympathetically by Boris Johnson and other members of the government, the government has not yet committed to change the law. She has made it clear that if the government does not do so, she intends to continue her campaign, including bringing forward a private member’s bill to highlight the issue.

The extent of the number of suicides related to domestic violence is only recently beginning to emerge, as a result of the work of various campaigners, including Professor Jane Monckton-Smith, a criminologist. She has stressed the need for improvement in the collection of data recording the suicides of women who have been subjected to domestic abuse. The limited research that is available on domestic abuse-related suicide suggests that as many as 1 in 8 of all female suicides and suicide attempts in the UK may be due to domestic abuse - which means that about 200 women each year take their own lives as a result of the domestic abuse they have endured.

Moreover a letter signed by more than 330 organisations, charities, individuals and bereaved families was sent to all MPs on 3 March 2022 (the first anniversary of the death of Sarah Everard, who was murdered by a serving police officer), asking the police to treat all sudden unexpected death of women who are known to have been the victims of domestic abuse as suspicious from the outset, in order that the necessary evidence is secured. A Home Office report, published in 2015, which re-examined 32 unexpected deaths of women which the police had decided were not suspicious, determined that 10 had been unlawfully killed and a further 8 of the deaths were suspicious, when their cases were looked at again by forensic pathologists.

This article is provided by Burlingtons for general information only. It is not intended to be and cannot be relied upon as legal advice or otherwise. If you would like to discuss any of the matters covered in this article, please contact Maeve O’Higgins or write to us using the contact form below.

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