The potential liability of criminals to pay compensation to their victims does not come to an end with their death. In a unique High Court case, that principle was applied to the estate of a paedophile who died leaving a net estate worth almost £4.7 million.
The former clergyman and teacher died at the age of 78. He had convictions going back many years for possessing, making and distributing indecent images of children. The last of those convictions involved the discovery of 100,000 indecent images at his home, and he received a four-year prison sentence.
By his will, he left the vast bulk of his estate to a charitable trust that he had set up to relieve poverty and advance education. His personal representatives were properly concerned that any victims of sexual abuse at his hands might have claims against the estate for compensation. They therefore sought the Court's directions as to how they should go about distributing the estate.
The Court noted that, by Section 1(1) of the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1934, the compensation rights of any victims survived the man's death. The duty of his personal representatives, as administrators of his estate, was to ascertain and pay all the man's debts and liabilities prior to distribution.
The man had never been convicted of any physical assaults on children but, after preliminary inquiries were carried out at the Court's behest, evidence emerged that he may well have committed such offences both in this country and abroad. He had travelled widely in Europe and there was a real likelihood that victims of historical sexual abuse would come forward to make claims on the estate.
Save for a few modest personal legacies, the Court directed that distribution of the estate be delayed until steps were taken to publicise the matter and to afford any victims who might come forward a fair opportunity to make claims.
The personal representatives were ordered to create a dedicated website, in English and three European languages, giving the man's date of death and details of his convictions and providing a facility for victims to make contact with the estate's solicitors. Further directions were made for the matter to be publicised on social media and Wikipedia in order to signpost potential claimants to the website.
The Court noted that its role was to strike a proper balance between the personal representatives' duty to honour the terms of the will and their obligation to take all reasonable steps to identify creditors of the estate. It remained to be seen what the publicity measures would yield and it would not be right to maintain a complete bar on the estate's distribution to the charity indefinitely. If numerous victims came forward, however, the Court observed that consideration might be given to setting up a formal compensation scheme.