Dunbar v Plant

JurisdictionEngland & Wales
Judgment Date23 July 1997
Judgment citation (vLex)[1997] EWCA Civ J0723-2
Docket NumberCHANF 96/0046/B
CourtCourt of Appeal (Civil Division)
Date23 July 1997

[1997] EWCA Civ J0723-2






Royal Courts of Justice


Lord Justice Hirst

Lord Justice Phillips

Lord Justice Mummery

CHANF 96/0046/B

John Arnold Dunbar (As Administrator of Tony Dunbar Deceased)
Nanette Elizabeth Plant

MR. N. THOMAS (instructed by Messrs Hart Reade, Eastbourne, East Sussex) appeared on behalf of the Appellant/Defendant.

MR. P. CRICHTON-GOLD (instructed by Messrs Mendelsons, Manchester) appeared on behalf of the Respondent/Plaintiff.


Mummery L.J.




This is the first case in which the Court of Appeal has had to consider the effect of the forfeiture rule and the impact of the Forfeiture Act 1982 (the 1982 Act) on the right of a survivor of a suicide pact to acquire benefits in consequence of the death of the other party to the pact.


Three questions arise for decision:—

(1) Was the criminal offence of aiding and abetting the suicide of another committed by the survivor, contrary to Section 2(1) of the Suicide Act 1961 (the 1961 Act) ?

(2) Does the forfeiture rule apply to preclude the survivor from acquiring:—

(a) Absolute beneficial ownership of a house previously held by the survivor and the deceased on trust for themselves as beneficial joint tenants; and

(b) The proceeds of an insurance policy on the life of the deceased written for the benefit of the survivor?

(3) Did the Judge properly exercise his discretion under Section 2 of the 1982 Act to modify the effect of the forfeiture rule in making an order limited to the deceased's interest in the house and not including the life policy proceeds: and, if not, how should that discretion have been exercised?


This cold dry summary of the legal issues does not mean that the court is insensitive to the tragic human aspects of the horrible events that happened on the 24 and 25 of February 1991 to two young lovers and their families. It is a matter of regret that, distressing though it may be, this appeal cannot be determined without discussion and description of the detail of those dreadful two days.




In October 1987 Nanette Plant (Miss Plant) and Tony Dunbar (Mr Dunbar) met and fell in love. They were both in their early twenties. At the end of 1987 they moved into a flat above the Fairholme Restaurant in Preston operated by Miss Plant's employer, First Leisure Corporation Ltd. Miss Plant went to work as a Unit Administration Controller at First Leisure's Savoy Hotel in Blackpool. When the couple first met Mr Dunbar was working as a porter. He later had a job in an advertising agency, until he was made redundant. He then became a self employed technical illustrator.


In October 1988 they bought a house at 26 Staining Avenue, Ashton in Preston (the house) in joint names with the assistance of a mortgage from the Newcastle Building Society.


They got engaged at Christmas 1989 and planned to marry on 10 August 1991. In January 1991 things started to go seriously wrong. Miss Plant fell under suspicion of false accounting and theft from First Leisure. On Friday 22 February 1991 she was called into the Savoy Hotel, questioned, accused of fraud and theft and threatened with imprisonment. She was questioned by hotel staff for 4 hours on Saturday 23 February and was again threatened with imprisonment.


On that Saturday and on Sunday 24 February Miss Plant and Mr Dunbar discussed their fears about the future. They thought that Miss Plant might be prosecuted and sent to prison. They did not tell the rest of the family about their problems. Late on the afternoon of 24 February Mr Dunbar talked to a representative of First Leisure, who said that Miss Plant would be arrested the next day. In the evening Miss Plant told Mr Dunbar that she had decided to take her own life. His reaction was that he could not face life without her. If she was going to end her life, he would take his too. They agreed to commit suicide.


In Miss Plant's own words—

" Tony and I discussed the position. The idea came to me of committing suicide. The idea was mine, but for me only. I never once said, or suggested or demanded that Tony should take his life. After that I had said that I was scared of living, Tony replied that he was scared of dying. I said I had nothing to live for and I was bound to go to prison. I told Tony that he would be alright (meaning that he would not go to prison). Tony then asked me how I would do it, and I said something like " the quickest and easiest way."

At this point, Tony suggested that we used the car, because we would be able to curl up and die in each others arms. We wanted to be together for ever. After we had made the decision, it was not again discussed between us, except how we would carry it out. After that Tony organised everything."


In the evening of the 24 February they made their first suicide attempt. They both left notes before driving into the country. They parked their car in a field. Mr Dunbar attached a hose pipe which he had borrowed from neighbours to the car exhaust and brought it through the driver's window of the car. They then both sat in the back of the car for 3 hours with the engine running. Although they suffered ill effects, the consequences of the attempt were not fatal. They drove home.


The events of the following day are described in Miss Plant's witness statement—

" We woke about 8 am. We both believed that if I left the house that day we would never see each other again. We decided to try again. Tony suggested that because the car plan had not worked we should try something quick. I suggested hanging. Tony went to the shed outside to see what he had got. He found some wire, some cable. We went up into the loft. Tony rigged it all up. I went up into the loft with him. The phone rang a couple of times but we ignored it, the door bell rang. It was about 9 am. It was someone who had called to collect work from Tony and Tony went down and gave him the work. I waited in the loft. When he came back he tied the wire round my neck. We told each other how much we loved each other, to wait for each other. Then he tied the wire around his neck. We counted to three and jumped. We were each standing on a ladder and we jumped at the same time. The wire snapped.

I then suggested that we used bed sheets. He went down and got them. Tony then tied them up. He first tied a sheet round my neck. I was scared that it would not be tight enough. He hugged me and told me how much he loved me. I told him the same. When he had done that, he did his own. We told each other again that we loved each other and to wait for each other. We counted to three and we both jumped. I just felt as if I had woken up and someone was holding me. Then my noose was loose and became undone. I went over to Tony to try and get him down. I climbed up onto the ladder to feel his pulse. I could feel no pulse. I then fell through the floor, through the ceiling of the bedroom below. My legs went through the plaster. I got up and again tried to get him down, thinking he might be alive. Then the ladder went through the floor. I realised that he was dead".


Miss Plant then made further attempts to finish her life by cutting her throat and wrists with a kitchen knife and jumping out of the back bedroom window. The Judge described the injuries to Miss Plant's neck and her wrists as horrific.


Mr Dunbar was 24 at the date of his death. He was survived by his parents. His father, Mr John Dunbar (the father), is the Plaintiff in these proceedings. On 8 May 1991 Letters of Administration to the estate of Mr Dunbar, who died intestate, were granted to the father out of the Liverpool District Probate Registry. He started proceedings against Miss Plant to determine the legal position about the ownership of the house, of various building society and bank accounts and of 2 insurance policies, one with General Accident Life Assurance Limited which was charged to the Building Society and the proceeds of which were used after Mr Dunbar's death to pay off the mortgage on the house; and the other with Allied Dunbar Assurance Plc. That policy was taken out on Mr Dunbar's life and was written for the benefit of Miss Plant. The policy matured on Mr Dunbar's death. It realised the sum which, together with interest, now amounts to £31,801. Pending the resolution of the dispute the proceeds have been placed in a joint deposit account. There was no dispute in the court below and no point was taken in this court challenging the entitlement of Miss Plant (apart from the possible operation of the forfeiture rule and the provisions of the 1982 Act) to the insurance monies.


The house has been sold for £35,000. It is not in dispute that the forfeiture rule, unless modified under the 1982 Act, applied to effect a severance of the beneficial joint tenancy in the house and that Miss Plant was therefore entitled to an equal half share in the proceeds as tenant in common. (This concession was correctly made: See Re K [1985] Ch 85 at 100 F-H). There is no dispute about the use of the proceeds of the General Accident Policy to pay off the mortgage for the benefit of both Miss Plant and Mr Dunbar's estate (cf Davitt v Titcumb [1990] Ch 110). Miss Plant was accordingly paid just over £17,000 for her half share. Almost all of that has gone in satisfaction of a default judgment obtained against her in proceedings by First Leisure to recover misappropriated funds. In later criminal proceedings Miss Plant pleaded guilty to charges of false accounting. On 8 May 1992 she received a suspended prison sentence of 9 months.





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