The High Court has found that the conviction of Catherine Nevin for the murder of her husband is admissible in civil proceedings seeking a declaration that Mrs Nevin is precluded from taking any share in the estate of her deceased husband (Patrick Nevin & Anor v Catherine Nevin  IEHC 80).
The proceedings were originally commenced by Nora Nevin, mother of the late Thomas Nevin, claiming against Catherine Nevin (i) a declaration that she was disinherited at common law from taking any share in the estate of the deceased; and (ii) a declaration that by virtue of section 120 of the Succession Act 1965 she was precluded from taking any share either as a legal right or otherwise in the estate of the deceased. In 1998 Nora Nevin, through her counsel, undertook that no further steps of any sort would be taken in the proceedings pending the final determination of the criminal proceedings which were then pending against Catherine Nevin.
In 2000 Catherine Nevin was convicted of the murder of her husband in the Central Criminal Court. She unsuccessfully exercised her right of appeal and also brought a further application under section 2 of the Criminal Procedure Act 1993 that a newly discovered fact rendered her conviction unsafe. She failed in that application also. She then issued a further application before the Court of Criminal Appeal seeking a certificate for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court on the basis that some exceptional point of public importance arose in her section 2 proceedings. That application was struck out, but re-lodged the day before the issue as to the admissibility of evidence of Mrs Nevin’s criminal conviction was due to be heard by the High Court. Kearns P was satisfied that the undertaking given on behalf of the plaintiffs in January 1998 to take no further steps in the proceedings pending the final determination of the criminal proceedings had been discharged following the conviction of Mrs Nevin and the rejection by the Court of Criminal Appeal of two subsequent appeals. He found that the plaintiffs were entitled to have adjudication upon the issue raised in the case after such long interval of time having regard to the entitlement to an adjudication within a reasonable time on the matters contended for in the proceedings.
Kearns P was also satisfied that the conviction of Mrs Nevin for her husband’s murder was admissible in the civil proceedings as prima facie evidence of the fact that she committed such murder. He stated that to rule out the conviction as completely inadmissible would be contrary to logic and common sense and would offend any reasonable person’s sense of justice and fairness. He stated that it was still open to Mrs Nevin on the trial at the civil proceedings to contend that she did not murder her husband and that she should not have been convicted. However the interval of time might create certain difficulties for both sides in the proceedings. Kearns P noted that the delay had arisen as result of the full exercise by Mrs Nevin of her rights under the criminal law system. He stated that it would be most unfair to the plaintiffs if they were now locked out from seeking a remedy for that reason.
The High Court decided the matter under common law as it was of the view that section 120 of the Succession Act 1965 could not be invoked by the plaintiffs due to an ambiguity in its wording. Section 120(1) of the 1965 Act refers to a person who has been “guilty of the murder” of another. Such a person is precluded from taking any share in the estate of that other. Section 120(4) refers to a person who has been “found guilty of an offence against the deceased” and such a person is precluded from taking any share in the estate as a legal right or making an application under section 117. The wording of subsection (1), referring as it does to a person who is guilty, rather than to a person who has been found guilty, does not appear to acquire a conviction before the disqualification on benefit applies. Kearns P stated that this was an extraordinary omission from section 120(1) for which it was difficult to find any rational explanation. He stated that Mrs Nevin must be the beneficiary of the ambiguity in the language and that the issue before the Court could not be resolved by reference to the specific provisions of section 120(1). He stated that section 120(1) only goes so far as to be declaratory of a public policy which is that the perpetrator of the crime of murder should not be the beneficiary. He also stated that it would be of considerable assistance if a suitable amendment of section 120(1) could be effected so as to address the anomaly referred to.
View the decision of the High Court here.