Case Comment – Re Amos – The Forfeiture Rule and Causing Death by Careless Driving

In Re Amos [2020] EWHC 1063 (Ch) HHJ Jarman QC helpfully filled a lacuna in the authorities concerning the application of the forfeiture rule to cases of causing death by careless driving.

Section 1 of the Forfeiture Act 1982 defines the forfeiture rule as: the rule of public policy which in certain circumstances precludes a person who has unlawfully killed another from acquiring a benefit in consequence of the killing. Section 2 empowers the court, where it has determined that the forfeiture rule applies, to make an order modifying its effect.

On 7th January 2019 Mrs Amos was driving on the M4 with her 81-year-old husband when she collided with a queue of stationary traffic. The purpose of their journey had been to travel from Wales to Kent to attend the funeral of Mr Amos’s sister. However, Mr Amos had become unwell during the journey and they had had to turn back. Although it initially appeared that he had not been seriously hurt, Mr Amos’s condition deteriorated and he passed away in hospital.

Mrs Amos was charged with causing death by careless driving, and entered a guilty plea. She received a suspended prison sentence and was disqualified from driving for 12 months.

By Mr Amos’s will, he left his residuary estate to Mrs Amos if she survived him. If she did not, his estate was to be divided among his daughter, his granddaughter and Mrs Amos’s son. Mr and Mrs Amos were joint owners of their home.

The issue for the court was whether the forfeiture rule applied to cases of causing death by careless driving. HHJ Jarman reviewed the authorites, and in particular the judgment of Lord Justice Phillips in Dunbar v Plant [1998] Ch 412, which concerned a case assisted suicide:

So far as the rule is concerned, I cannot see any logical basis for not applying it to all cases of manslaughter…in the crime of manslaughter the actus reus is causing the death of another. That actus reus is rendered criminal if it occurs in one of the various circumstances that are prescribed by law. Anyone guilty of manslaughter has…caused the death of another by criminal conduct. It is in such circumstances that the rule…applies…The appropriate course where the application of the rule appears to conflict with the ends of justice is to exercise the powers given by the [1982] Act.

Although Dunbar predated the creation of the offence of causing death by careless driving, HHJ Jarman concluded that there could be no logical reason to justify imposing the rule in all cases of manslaughter, no matter the degree of culpability of the killer, but not in some cases of causing death by dangerous driving. He therefore held that the forfeiture rule applied to Mrs Amos. However, it was appropriate to exercise the powers conferred by section 2 to modify the effect of the rule. Mrs Amos had been driving for a very long period of time; it had been dark and raining; she had entered a guilty plea at the first opportunity; she had worked hard in creating the family home; two of the beneficiaries who stood to benefit if the rule was applied had not contested Mrs Amos’ claim. In the circumstances, HHJ Jarman considered that the loss of her home and / or her inheritance would be significantly out of proportion to Mrs Amos’ culpability. He therefore modified the rule so as to permit her to retain her inheritance and survive her husband as owner of their home.

Tim Jacques accepts instructions in contentious probate and Inheritance Act claims, and has experience of acting for claimants, beneficiaries and personal representatives.