Landmark Case allows Coercive Control Victim to Inherit Estate despite Manslaughter Conviction

Solicitor Danielle Wane

We have seen the historic case set by the High Court whereby His Honour Judge Matthews (HHJ Matthews) ruled that after suffering years of abuse and coercively controlling behaviour, the claimant, Mrs Challen who killed her husband, sets to inherit his £1 million estate. Mr and Mrs Challen were married for over 40 years and met when Mrs Challen was 15 and Mr Challen (“the deceased”) was 22.

The deceased left no will and the major asset, the matrimonial home, was jointly owned by the deceased and Mrs Challen.

Whilst this case is specific to the facts, this clearly shows the changes in how the law is applied to cases where there is a history of domestic abuse and coercive control.

Mrs Challen killed the deceased in 2010; after years of mental abuse they separated but the deceased tried to win back her trust and manipulated Mrs Challen into signing a post nuptial agreement including a provision that she would stop smoking and hand over the house to him if they divorced. This post nuptial agreement was prepared, but she was advised by her solicitor not to enter into it.

Nevertheless, in order to please the deceased, on 13 August 2010 she signed it. Mrs Challen (“the Claimant”) later found out that the deceased had manipulated her into signing the agreement by lying to her as he was seeing other women.

In 2010 after many years of psychological terrorism Mrs Challen finally snapped and killed her husband.

The murder conviction was quashed on appeal and replaced with manslaughter in 2019 due to diminished responsibility caused by the deceased behaviour towards Mrs Challen.

The normal rules set under the Forfeiture Act 1982 (“The Act”) apply to death before 1 February 2012 whereby a person who has unlawfully killed another (or who has unlawfully aided, abetted, counselled or procured the death of that other) forfeits that person from acquiring a benefit as a result of the killing.

HHJ Matthews, sitting in the High Court used his power to modify the forfeiture rule under Section 2 of the Act on the basis that justice would prevail and he was ‘satisfied that, having regard to the conduct of the offender and of the deceased and to such other circumstances as appear to the court to be material, the justice of the case required the effect of the rule to be so modified [or excluded] in that case.’

Furthermore, he weighed up the issue of limitation as the Act states that the claim would have to be brought within 3 months of the beginning of the conviction. HHJ Matthews considered all of the elements on the issue of limitation and considered what constitutes “conviction” for the purpose of the act and the timing of the original conviction for murder and manslaughter and came to the conclusion “where there is an initial conviction followed by an appeal, and then a subsequent conviction, it is the subsequent conviction which is the relevant one for the purposes of section 2(3) of the Act and the time-limit provided for.”

HHJ Matthews said in his ruling, “The deceased was serially unfaithful to the claimant, both before and after marriage, going through periods of coming home late at night on a regular basis and also telling the claimant that “he wanted his own place so he could do as he pleased”. He was also known to visit prostitutes, and on one occasion the claimant confronted him whilst he was leaving a brothel (which was subsequently raided by police). The deceased’s behaviour during their relationship and their marriage was by turns contemptuous, belittling, aggressive or violent. His response to any suggestion that she would divorce him was that he would limit access to their children. He would ignore her complaints about his behaviour or insist that she was mistaken and that she had not seen what she said she had seen. Over the long term, the deceased’s infidelity, use of prostitutes, violence towards the claimant, humiliating conduct, and isolation of the claimant, as well as what can only be described as “gaslighting” her, by making her think that she was imagining his behaviour, led to what has subsequently been described as the deceased’s ‘coercive control’ of the claimant. Coercive control is now recognised, not only as a social phenomenon, but indeed also as a criminal offence since 2015 (although not at the time of the killing).”

HHJ Matthews said that, “The deceased undoubtedly contributed significantly to the circumstances in which he died. I do not say that because coercive control is now a criminal offence, but simply because I consider that, without his appalling behaviour over so many years, the claimant would not have killed him.”

HHJ Matthews held that in awarding the claimant, Mrs Challen, the inheritance from the deceased’s estate rather than to her sons, this prevented the Estate being taxed heavily which would have resulted in her sons, who were innocent of any crime, being worse off given the transfer to Mrs Challen, the spouse of the deceased, would be an exempt transfer for inheritance tax purposes.

This case is extraordinary due to the facts but reiterates the importance of seeking independent legal advice for divorce, domestic abuse and Wills and Estate Planning.

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