Scarle [2019] EWHC 2224 (Ch)

WTLR Issue: Winter 2019

THE ESTATE OF JOHN WILLIAM SCARLE DECEASED (by his personal representative Ann Winter)

V

THE ESTATE OF MARJORIE ANN SCARLE DECEASED (by her personal representative Deborah Ann Cutler)

Analysis

A husband and his wife were both found dead at their home in October 2016. Both were found to have died of hypothermia, and the wife ‘s body in a more advanced state of decomposition. They left jointly-owned property which fell to be distributed differently depending on which of them died first. The parties were the executors of their respective estates. s184 Law of Property Act 1925 provides as follows: “In all cases where … two or more persons have died in circumstances rendering it uncertain which of them survived the other or others, such deaths shall (subject to any order of the court), for all purposes affecting the title to property, be presumed to have occurred in order of seniority, and accordingly the younger shall be deemed to have survived the elder.” The husband ‘s administrator maintained that it could be proven that the wife died first, in light of the agreed expert evidence that the wife ‘s body was in a more advanced state of decomposition. The wife ‘s executor submitted that to escape the presumption created by s184, the wife ‘s prior death had to be proven to a higher standard, somewhere between the civil and criminal standards of proof, and that the more advanced state of decomposition could be attributed to differences in temperature between the rooms in which the two bodies were found. The issues for the court were: 1) What standard of proof was required to displace the presumption provided for by s184? 2) Had that standard been met in the present case, so as to permit the court to decide which of the deceased died first? Held: 1) The standard of proof in determining the order of deaths was the ordinary civil standard of the balance of probabilities – Re B [2009] 1 A.C. 11 followed. Hickman v Peacey [1945] A.C. 304 is not authority for the proposition that proof of the order of death must be to a higher standard; the majority ‘s decision is obiter as to that question. Re Bate [1947] 2 All ER 418 was consistent with Re B. Where the events surrounding the deaths are capable of giving rise to different inferences which are not in themselves improbable, the court should not reject one inference in favour of another unless there is some evidence upon which it can safely conclude that it be rejected. 2) Applying that standard to the facts, it was not possible to be satisfied that either spouse died before the other. The evidence, both lay and expert, was largely equivocal and the only evidence which could point unequivocally to the sequence of death was the relative difference in decomposition. However, even that evidence had two not-improbable explanations: first that the husband died first; second that the toilet in which the wife was found was warmer. The latter could not be discounted, so the inference could not be drawn that the husband had died first. Accordingly, the sequence of death remained uncertain and the presumption in s184 would be applied

Counsel details

Amrik Wahiwala (East Anglian Chambers, 140 New London Road, Chelmsford, CM2 0AQ, email: chelmsford@ealaw.co.uk) instructed by Sparlings LLP (3 West Stockwell Street, Colchester, Essex CO1 1HQ, tel: 01206 733733) for the claimant


James Weale (6 New Square, Lincoln ‘s Inn, London, WC2A 3QS) instructed by Law Hurst and Taylor LLP (153 Hamlet Court Road, Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, SS0 7EL, tel: 1702 337864) for the defendant

Legislation referenced

Legislation in bold has further reading - click to view.