The Forfeiture Rule & Assisted Dying

Q My mother is terminally ill – she has one of those nasty neurological diseases that I can’t pronounce. Bob, her husband of 21 years, has agreed to take her to Belgium (cheaper than Switzerland) so she may die in comfort and dignity. They want me on the trip. My only problem is, the law, being an ass, would view Bob and my actions as a crime. They point to Sarah Ninian as a precedent.  I doubt we would face criminal prosecution. But how can we be sure Bob’s and my inheritance would be protected from the forfeiture rule?

A. Houseman, Poole

A The bar bore, like his cousin occupied writing pulp fiction, would never tire of reminding us that prostitution isn’t a crime. But working in brothel is.

By logic, suicide couldn’t be a crime, if it were, what would be the penalty? However, assisting the suicide of another is a crime. A crime held so grave as to be worthy of a prison term of 14 years. Fourteen years. In the 300 years we’ve had the office of Prime Minister, the last PM to serve 14 years in office was Robert Jenkinson. His term ended in 1827.

The Forfeiture Rule

The forfeiture rule, whereby someone may no longer inherit, applies not only if the beneficiary is found guilty of killing the bequeather. The rule also applies if they are found to have assisted or encouraged that person’s death.

Incentives matter.

One of several reasons adduced in opposition to decriminalising assisted suicide or assisted dying is the incentive for the avaricious to act not to end the suffering of the terminally ill, but to get their grubby hands on the estate of the ill person earlier than they might otherwise have by hastening their death. Or, horror upon horrors, the murderous would wear assisted suicide as a mask to do murder.

Of the case to which you refer: I recall this calamitous concatenation of events was headlined to highlight Mrs Sarah Ninian’s supposed avarice – that she assisted her husband’s suicide to get her hands on her husband’s estate of one and four fifths of a million pounds.

Let’s turn our backs on the clickbait headline.

Sarah Ninian…& The Forfeiture Rule

Alex Ninian, Sarah’s spouse, terminally ill, journeyed to Switzerland to end his life.  Mrs Ninian had to be won round to the notion of accompanying him on his final temporal journey – she had to be coaxed to make the travel arrangements.

The court ruled Sarah could inherit his estate despite her assisting in his suicide.

Mrs Ninian’s success in the court rested on twin foundations. One, her initial opposition to his assisted dying – so her acts could not be construed as encouragement – and the Crown Prosecution Service’s failure to bring a case against her. If on the day your performance in court fails to impress your audience, well, that’s it. You have to be a sympathetic supplicant. That way you may enter the court with the optimism of a boxer entering the final rounds. Otherwise, the case will go against you. We’ll do well to recall the QC
Courtenay Griffiths’s contention from long ago: a court case is at bottom, a performance.

The redundancy of stating the obvious, that a court case is an expensive enterprise makes me feel foolish.

No Harm No Crime?

Even further beyond the headlines, Chief Master Matthew Marsh’s judgement might be seen to cement a rule which states that when the criminal law brings no sanction, neither should the forfeiture rule. In support of this view, authority could be drawn from Lord-Justice Phillips’ assertion: “Where the public interest requires no penal sanction, it seems to me that strong grounds are likely to exist for relieving the person who has committed the offence from all effect of the forfeiture rule.”

At all times, despite Sarah never being prosecuted, never mind convicted. Nonetheless, she was referred to, sometimes obliquely and at other times to her face, as an offender.

The Assisted Dying Act is wending its way through Parliament. It’s unlikely it will become law in this session of Parliament, or indeed any time soon.

At all times, you and I need to be able to laugh at suspicion. Therefore, while there are means and methods I could propagate, at the risk of appearing to assist an offender or conspire in the execution of an act currently against common law, especially as an officer of the court, I must beg to refuse to proffer an answer to your question.