Article by Adam Furze
The case of Challen v Challen concerns a claim for the modification of the forfeiture rule as governed by the Forfeiture Act 1982.
When successfully raised, the forfeiture rule will preclude a person who is convicted of unlawfully killing a person from inheriting the deceased’s estate under the Forfeiture Act 1982.
The claimant was Sally Challen who in 2011 was convicted for murdering her abusive husband and was sentenced to serve a 22-year life sentence which was later dropped to 18 years on appeal.
In February 2019, in a landmark case for victims of domestic abuse and coercive control, her murder conviction was quashed by the Criminal Division of the Court of Appeal. During her time in prison the scientific understanding about coercive control and fresh psychiatric evidence to suggest that the depression she was suffering because of coercive control resulted in her suffering an abnormality of mind. This evidence was not available at the trial at first instance. Lady Justice Hallett made it clear at the appeal that the only two defences to murder were diminished responsibility and loss of control as conferred by Parliament. Coercive control itself is not a defence to murder. However, the abnormality of mind which she suffered as a result of coercive control meant that the defence of diminished responsibility could be raised. Thus, the conviction was quashed, and a re-trial was ordered.
On the 7th of June 2019, the prosecution accepted a guilty plea to manslaughter and Mrs Challen was sentenced to 9 years. However, as she had already served 9 years of a murder sentence, she was released due to time already served.
The respondents were Mrs Challen’s two sons who acted on behalf of her deceased husband’s estate. They were not present at the hearing and they fully supported their mother’s claim.
Why was the claim brought?
Traditionally, the forfeiture rule will preclude anyone who has unlawfully killed another person from inheriting their estate. However, the Forfeiture Act 1982 will allow the modification of the rule in certain circumstances. If one were to apply the strict forfeiture rule, Mrs Challen would not be entitled to the estate. The claim was brought for the forfeiture rule to be modified to allow Mrs Challen to be entitled to the estate in order for the amount of inheritance tax payable to be reduced. This was to ensure that her sons had full access to the estate. There was no intention to deprive her sons of their inheritance.
There were three main legal issues to be resolved. Namely:
The application was made on the 6th September 2019. Section 2(3) of the Forfeiture Act 1982 places a three-month time limit on claims. The crown indicated on the 29th of May 2019 that they would accept a guilty plea for manslaughter. If one would accept this date, then the claim would be time barred. However, the Crown did not officially accept the guilty plea of manslaughter until 7th of June 2019. If one would accept this date, then the claim would not be time barred. The judge held that the claim was not time barred as the conviction was only made official when it was accepted on the 7th of June 2019.
The original conviction for murder was on the 23rd of June 2011 and there was no application for relief within three months of that date. This posed the question, does the time limits from s.2(3) of the act run from the time of conviction or the time of appeal? However, the conviction was not reduced on appeal, it was quashed, and a re-trial was ordered. But that still left an unlawful killing element present when the guilty plea to manslaughter was accepted.
It was held that there was an initial conviction followed by an appeal, and then a subsequent conviction. It was the subsequent conviction which was the relevant one for the purposes of section 2(3) of the Act and the time limit provided for.
The word conviction has many meanings in many different contexts. The question arose: what event actually constituted the conviction for the purpose of the Forfeiture Act? The judge held that it was not when the guilty plea was made it was when the plea was accepted, and the defendant was sentenced.
Finally, the judge had to take all circumstances into account when there is an application to modify the forfeiture rule and there is an element of judicial discretion. The facts of this case were acknowledged as tragic and extremely rare considering Mrs Challen and the deceased met at 15 years old. She became pregnant at 17 and had an abortion. She was married for forty years with two children whilst in a relationship rife with infidelity, coercive control, humiliation and occasional sexual violence. The judge was satisfied that Mrs Challen was in love with Mr Challen and this is not a claim in malice or revenge. Thus, the claim was allowed. The judge also commented saying that he does not expect to see the facts of this case easily replicated again.
The judge said that he does not expect to see the facts of this case easily replicated. One can argue that the most prominent element in domestic abuse crimes is that it happens behind closed doors. People cannot see the pain which victims are suffering. This argument is particularly prominent at a time of exponential growth for the number of domestic abuse crimes committed during COVID 19. One can argue that just because the courts will not see so many of these cases does not mean that they do not exist. The judgement in R v Challen paved the way for victims of domestic abuse and coercive control and the courts finally accepted the existence of coercive control theory. One can argue that more and more cases with similar facts will go through the courts and that will not stop at criminal proceedings. There could be a rise in civil claims for estate and other assets with cases with similar facts to Challen v Challen.
Further questions which arise from this case include:
Why should the Challen family be allowed to avoid inheritance tax just because the deceased was murdered and did not die from any other causes?
The size of the estate will have been large due to the Challen’s family wealth. Why should a wealthy family get the opportunity to pay less tax?
Could this decision set a dangerous precedent where victims of domestic abuse could potentially profit in the long run from killing their spouses?