Wednesday 14 October 2015

A legal rarity

Update 7th January 2016 - the hearings may be viewed via the JCPC website.  A further hearing is schedule for late January 2016.

The legal system contains some hidden "gems" which appear from time-to-time.  Love them or hate them, they are of legal interest.  One of them is a Reference to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council under section 4 of the Judicial Committee Act 1833:

"It shall be lawful for His Majesty to refer to the said Judicial Committee for hearing or consideration any such other matters whatsoever as His Majesty shall think fit; and such Committee shall thereupon hear or consider the same, and shall advise His Majesty thereon in manner aforesaid."

Such a reference is to be heard by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council on 25-26 November 2015.  It is entitled - In the matter of Baronetcy of Pringle of Stichill

The issue is - "Which of the applicant (Murray Pringle) or the respondent (Simon Pringle) is the legitimate successor to the Baronetcy of Pringle of Stichill."

The outcome seems likely to depend on whether DNA evidence is admissible to determine these matters and, of course, whether the actual evidence stands up to the scrutiny of the court.

The case will be heard by Lord Neuberger, Lady Hale, Lord Mance, Lord Kerr, Lord Reed, Lord Hughes, Lord Hodge.  It is quite remarkable in itself that this is considered to merit a 7 judge court which, on reaching its decision, will ADVISE Her Majesty.  The "advice" is then adopted by the Privy Council. 

The applicant (Murray) is descended from the second son of the 8th Baronet Pringle.  The respondent (Simon) is the son of the late Lt. General Sir Stueart Pringle who was Commandant General of the Royal Marines.  General Pringle was a most distinguished officer who, in 1981, lost a leg to an IRA bomb.  Steuart Pringle was recognised until his death as the 10th Baronet.

The Baronetcy dates from 1683 when King Charles II granted it to Robert Pringle of Stichill ac heredibus masculis de suo corpore, a Latin phrase translating as "and his male heirs from his body".

Thus, the descent is limited to male heirs in direct line from that Robert Pringle.  This form of descent used to be possible in relation to land (and personal property) - known as an entail or entailed interest.  However, new entailed interests may not be created since the Trusts of Land and Appointment of Trustees Act 1996 section 2 and Schedule 1 paragraph 5.

A Baronetcy is an hereditary dignity

The Baronetage - Debrett's

Herald Scotland 30th December 2015

Additional Notes:

The reference was heard by a Board of 7 Justices on 25th and 26th November 2015 and at an extra day on 26th January 2016.  The additional day was included so that matters of Scots Law could be addressed.  The Pringle Baronetcy comes within the jurisdiction of Lord Lyon, King of Arms in Scotland.

Lt. Gen. Sir Steuart Pringle was regarded until his death in 2013 as the 10th Baronet and his father was recognised as the 9th.

Murray Pringle became active in a Pringle Surname Project and Sir Steuart gave a DNA sample to this project.  This was because the Project (administered by Murray) was seeking to establish who was entitled to be Chief of the Clan.  The Chieftainship and the Baronetcy do not have to be the same person.  At this time, no indication appears to have been given to Sir Steuart that the sample might be used to challenge his entitlement to the Baronetcy.  (Whether this was implied was a question canvassed by the Board).  In some of the later correspondence revealed at the hearing it also appears that Sir Steuart asked Murray: "What happens if a cuckoo appears in the nest?"

Simon Pringle argued that there had been a misuse of confidential information and that specific permission ought to have been obtained to use the DNA sample for the purposes of looking at entitlement to the Baronetcy.   It was further argued that Murray had acted in breach of data protection principles under the Data Protection Act 1998.

The DNA results led Murray Pringle to allege that the 9th Baronet was not the natural son of the 8th Baronet.  This is despite the 9th Baronet's mother (Florence) making a statutory declaration in 1920 that the 9th Baronet was her son by the 8th Baronet.  If the DNA is admissible to determine such matters then Murray Pringle claims that he is the rightful person who should be enrolled as 11th Baronet. 

The hearing led to some fascinating analysis of old cases such as the Banbury Peerage Case (1811) 1 Sm and St 153.  There is a presumption in law that a child born to married parents is the child of that marriage.  During history it was, as a matter of public policy, difficult to challenge (i.e. rebut) this presumption of legitimacy though it could be rebutted in certain ways such as by proof of the husband's absence making it impossible for him to have been the father.   This strict approach was supportable given the stigma that once attached to illegitimacy.  In this Reference, it was argued that when looking at whether person was or was not legitimate, it was necessary to look at the law as it was at the time and not view the matter through the lens of later developments in the law.

Since the Family Law Reform Act 1969 section 26 it is possible to rebut the presumption on a balance of probabilities where there is evidence to show that it is more probable than not that the person is illegitimate.  [Background to the 1969 Act may be seen in Hansard - here].  The 1969 Act effectively clarified the standard of proof required. 

A furthermore point is that the person entitled to a Baronetcy has to be determined each time a Baronet dies.  There is no automatic succession since it is necessary for the person claiming the title to prove this to the satisfaction of the Lord Lyon.  Thus, the 9th Baronet would not have been entitled to succeed had he been the son of a man other than the 8th Baronet.  That would, in turn, have meant that Steuart Pringle ought never to have been the 10th Baronet.  Also, in relation to titles and honours, it appears that the law of prescription has no application.

On 26th January 2016 various matters of Scots Law were presented to the Board by Sir Crispin Agnew of Lochnaw Bt. QC who is a Scottish Advocate and also Chief of the Agnew of Lochnaw clan.  His submissions included looking at questions of limitation and explaining the Scots law of mora, taciturnity and acquiescence.  In certain matters in Scotland this aspect of Scots Law has proved to be problematic - e.g. see here.

All in all it has been an interesting and fascinating matter. 


  1. The DNA question was determined in the case of the Moynihan barony - I hope the parties are aware of it.

    1. Thank you so much for this comment. Baron Moynihan

      I expect this would be regarded as a precedent though the House of Lords Committee of Privileges is not a court of law.

    2. They were on to Moynihan. I was there and drew it here