Beresford v Royal Insurance Co Ltd: HL 1938

The forfeiture rule was to be applied in a case involving suicide. An insured may not recover under a policy of insurance in respect of loss intentionally caused by his own criminal or tortious act, however clearly the wording of the policy may suggest otherwise, and his personal representative is in no better position: ‘On ordinary principles of insurance law an assured cannot by his own deliberate act cause the event upon which the insurance money is payable. The insurers have not agreed to pay on that happening. The fire assured cannot recover if he intentionally burns down his house, nor a marine assured if he scuttles his ship, nor the life assured if he deliberately ends his own life. This is not the result of public policy, but of the correct construction of the contract.’ and ‘But apart from these considerations the absolute rule is that the courts will not recognise a benefit accruing to a criminal from his crime.’ As to the position of a personal representative: ‘I cannot think the principle of public policy to be so narrow as not to include the increase of the criminal’s estate amongst the benefits which he is deprived of by his crime. His executor or administrator claims as his representative, and, as his representative, falls under the same ban.’ The ban would not affect an assignee for value before the event apparently giving rise to liability under the policy.


Lord Atkin


[1938] AC 586, [1938] 2 All ER 602


England and Wales


Appeal fromBeresford v Royal Insurance Co Ltd CA 1937
Major Beresford had shot himself. The court considered the applicability of the forfeiture rule in a case involving a suicide: ‘suicide when sane is by English law a felony. This has been so from very early times. The law is thus succinctly stated . .
CitedCleaver v Mutual Reserve Fund Life Association CA 1892
The deceased’s executors objected to his widow maintaining action on a trust created by an insurance policy in her favour under the Act. She had been convicted of his murder. The executors’ case was that ‘it is against public policy to allow a . .

Cited by:

CitedDunbar (As Administrator of Tony Dunbar Deceased) v Plant CA 23-Jul-1997
The couple had decided on a suicide pact. They made repeated attempts, resulting in his death. Property had been held in joint names. The deceased’s father asked the court to apply the 1982 Act to disentitle Miss Plant.
Held: The appeal was . .
CitedKeeley (Widow of Terence Noel James Keeley Deceased) v Pashen and Wren Motor Syndicate 1202 at Lloyd’s CA 10-Nov-2004
The driver had driven his car at a crowd of people intending to frighten them. Instead one had been killed. The insurers resisted liability saying that the use of the car for this purpose and as it was being used as a taxi, was not use for social . .
CitedHardy v Motor Insurers’ Bureau CA 1964
The court was asked whether insurance pursuant to the Road Traffic Act 1960 would provide valid cover for the benefit of a third party injured by deliberately criminal conduct on the part of the driver.
Held: Diplock LJ said: ‘The rule of law . .
CitedCommissioner of Police for the Metropolis v Reeves (Joint Administratix of The Estate of Martin Lynch, Deceased) HL 15-Jul-1999
The deceased was a prisoner known to be at risk of committing suicide. Whilst in police custody he hanged himself in his prison cell. The Commissioner accepted that he was in breach of his duty of care to the deceased, but not that that breach was . .
CitedKR and others v Royal and Sun Alliance Plc CA 3-Nov-2006
The insurer appealed findings of liability under the 1930 Act. Claims had been made for damages for child abuse in a residential home, whom they insured. The home had become insolvent, and the claimants had pursued the insurer.
Held: The . .
CitedPorter v Zurich Insurance Company QBD 5-Mar-2009
The claimant insured his house with the defendants. Severely depressed, drunk and delusional, he set fire to it and now claimed after refusal to pay out. He said that he was not acting as a free agent.
Held: A claimant who seeks to recover . .
CitedBristol Alliance Ltd v Williams and Another QBD 1-Jul-2011
The driver had crashed into the insured’s building causing substantial damage. The court was asked which of the driver’s and building’s insurers should bear the costs. The driver’s insurers said that he had acted deliberately and therefore they were . .
Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Wills and Probate, Insurance

Updated: 24 April 2022; Ref: scu.199533