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Published: Wed, 07 Mar 2018

Beresford v Royal Insurance Co Ltd [1938] AC 586

Lawful contract unenforceable on public policy grounds.


In 1925 Major Rowlandson took out five life insurance policies on his own life with the defendants, Royal Insurance Co Ltd, amounting to £50,000. Each policy contained the condition: “If one of the lives assured shall die by his own hand, whether sane or insane within one year from the commencement of the assurance, the policy shall be except void”.  In 1934 Major Rowlandson shot himself. The claimant, Major Rowlandson’s administratrix sued the company claiming the amount of the insurance. 


The defendants pleaded that as Major Rowlandson had committed suicide, the policies had become void. 


The House of Lords held that on true construction of the contract the insurance company had promised to pay the amount assured if Major Rowlandson intentionally killed himself while sane. However, they then looks at whether the contract was enforceable in law. It was established at that time that suicide was a crime in English law. The court referred to cases such as Crippen’s Case [1911] P 108 in which it was held that the estate of a man who murdered his wife could not benefit from his crime. Lord Atkin said (at 599):

“I think that the principle is that a man is not to be allowed to have recourse to a Court of Justice to claim a benefit from his crime whether under a contract or a gift… to hold otherwise would in some cases offer an inducement to crime or remove a restraint to crime”.

Therefore, their Lordships refused to allow the administratrix to claim the insurance on the grounds of public policy even though the contract was lawful.

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