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Jean-Yves Gilg

Editor, Solicitors Journal

In the genes: 'The baronetcy of Stichill

In the genes: 'The baronetcy of Stichill


Ane Vernon discusses how DNA evidence can be used to rebut the presumption of legitimacy and challenge succession to a hereditary title

The baronetcy of Stichill was granted by King Charles II to Robert Pringle of Stichill 'ac heredibus masculis de suo corpore' (and the male heirs of his body).

Following the recent judgment of the Privy Council in In the matter of the Baronetcy of Pringle of Stichill [2016] UKPC 16, a line of the Pringle family unexpectedly found itself deprived of this title.

The matter turned on whether a boy born in 1903,
30 weeks into the marriage of the eighth baronet, Sir Norman Robert Pringle, was in fact fathered by the baronet.
The child, Norman Hamilton, became the ninth baronet
and his son Steuart became
the tenth baronet.

In 2009, Murray Pringle,
the grandson of the second-born son of the eighth baronet, set out to determine the chieftainship of the Pringle clan using genetic testing. Murray asked Sir Steuart Pringle and his son Simon to provide a DNA sample. The tenth baronet agreed, adding a prophetic comment: 'Your faith in DNA is touching, but what happens when (if?) a male cuckoo enters the nest?'

On receipt of the DNA results, Murray advised Sir Steuart that the differences in the DNA showed they were 'not related through the male line'. This ruled out Sir Steuart as chief of the clan and had a direct impact on the entitlement to the Stichill baronetcy.

Proceedings in the Family Court, in which Murray applied for a declaration of parentage and Sir Steuart sought an injunction preventing the use of the DNA evidence for any other purpose than establishing the chieftainship of the Pringle clan, were dismissed by consent after Sir Steuart's death in 2013.

Both Murray and Simon
then registered their claims to be entitled to succeed to the baronetcy.

Experts concluded that
the DNA of Sir Steuart and his half-brother was so different from that of the male descendants of the second
and third sons of the eighth baronet (the group including Murray) that 'there was no support for the view that they had a common male origin in the last 1,000 years'.

Simon did not dispute the DNA results but argued they should be inadmissible on the grounds of public policy.

He said the evidence affected deceased individuals; it overturned a well-established lineage on the basis of which successive generations had conducted their affairs; and its use was inconsistent with the purpose for which his father
had provided his DNA sample.

Further, there was a presumption that the first-born son of the eighth baronet and his wife was the result of sexual relations between them, and while 30 weeks was short of
full term it was sufficient for
a healthy baby to be born.

English and Scots law have
rebuttable presumption
of legitimacy. Neither has
a general bar on receipt of evidence as to paternity,
but Simon submitted that the evidence was wrongfully used to challenge the entitlement
to the baronetcy.

The Privy Council was
not persuaded by Simon's submission that Murray breached a confidence or misused private information.
Sir Steuart was aware that he was contributing to a genealogical record, and had to be taken to be aware that his DNA might found a challenge to the baronetcy.

The board was unpersuaded that the Scots law principle of fairness prevented the admission of Sir Steuart's DNA. There was no question of dishonesty or deception on Murray's part and the evidence was of central importance to the establishment of entitlement to the title.

Applying English law would result in a similar decision. Common law does not normally concern itself with the way in which evidence was obtained, although the court has discretion to refuse to admit evidence. Murray's conduct could not be described as underhand, and even if there had been a data protection breach, it would not be a proper basis for excluding the evidence.

The board accepted the experts' analysis and concluded that Simon was neither the grandson of the eighth baronet nor the heir male of the first baronet. It further concluded that Murray was the grandson
of the eighth baronet, and as the heir male of the first baronet was entitled to succeed to the baronetcy of Pringle of Stichill.

In reaching these conclusions, the board expressed its sympathy for the late Sir Steuart and Simon, the heir presumptive, who had grown up in the belief that his father was rightfully the tenth baronet and that he would succeed to the baronetcy.

Prior to the availability of
DNA evidence, the presumption of legitimacy could rarely be rebutted. With the advancement of science and the admissibility of DNA evidence in cases such
as this, the doors are opened
to challenge family succession many generations into the past. Until decision makers have grappled with the advancement of science, holders of hereditary titles should be mindful of
the possible unexpected consequences of providing
a DNA sample.

Ane Vernon is a senior associate in the dispute resolution department at Payne Hicks Beach