Andrew O'Keeffe comments on the legal fight over the Scottish baronetcy of Pringle of Stichill in STEP Journal.
The Privy Council has ruled that DNA evidence can be accepted to
uphold a man's claim to succeed to the baronetcy of Pringle of
The title, created in 1683, was most recently held by the tenth
baronet Steuart Robert Pringle, who died in 2013. He had inherited
it in 1961 from his father Norman Hamilton Pringle (the ninth
baronet) who had in turn inherited it in 1919 from his father
Norman Robert Pringle (the eighth baronet). Both these successions
were accepted at the time without opposition.
However, the 2013 succession is disputed. Simon Pringle, son of
the tenth baronet, Sir Steuart Pringle, had a claim but it was
challenged by his second cousin, Murray Pringle, who is a retired
accountant from Buckinghamshire. He claims that Simon Pringle's
grandfather, the ninth baronet, was not the legitimate son of the
eighth baronet, and that the succession should therefore have
passed through a different family line – which leads to
Murray Pringle himself. Scots law states that a title of honour,
such as a baronetcy, does not vest in legal heirship, but by
'right of blood' – that is, by biological
The case is based on DNA evidence. Murray Pringle has been
conducting a project on the history of the Pringle family, in order
to determine the chieftainship of the clan – an important
issue for Scottish gentry. He persuaded the tenth baronet, Sir
Steuart Pringle, to provide a DNA sample during his lifetime to aid
in this project. That sample has now been compared with samples
from other, surviving, family members, and appears to show
convincingly that the eighth baronet is grandfather to Norman
The other contender for the title, Simon Pringle, did not
dispute this, but sought to have the claim time-barred and the DNA
evidence excluded on grounds of public policy. However, the Privy
Council's Board of the Judicial Committee has now dismissed his
case. It rejected the time-barred argument on the grounds that the
right to succeed to an honour was made imprescriptible by the
Prescription and Limitation (Scotland) Act 1973.
It also ruled that the use of Sir Steuart's DNA was not a
breach of confidentiality or the Data Protection Act, because Sir
Steuart must have known it could be used for this purpose, and it
would be disproportionate to exclude such persuasive evidence from
The Privy Council also considered the Law Reform (Parent and
Child) (Scotland) Act 1986, which states that the presumption
of paternity could now be rebutted by a balance of probabilities
test rather than the old criterion of reasonable doubt. As a result
it ruled that Norman Murray Pringle's challenge for succession
to the baronetcy should be allowed.
Andrew O'Keefe, Partner at law firm Wedlake Bell, said the
implications of the ruling could be far reaching: 'Now that DNA
evidence has been allowed in evidence to decide this dispute, it
must, by corollary, mean that it is likely to be used in any future
challenges of this nature [...] Therefore, this case could have
far-reaching implications for titled families facing a challenge
over succession.' The Privy Council in its judgment also noted
that DNA evidence has the potential to reopen a family succession
many generations into the past.
'Whether this is a good thing and whether legal measures are
needed to protect property transactions in the past, the rights of
the perceived beneficiary of a trust of property, and the long
established expectations of a family, are questions for others to
consider', it said.
This article was first published in STEP Journal on 23 June
2016. Please click
here to view the article on the STEP
The well documented case of Heather Ilott and her attempt to overturn her Mother's will appears to have come to an end with the Supreme Court ruling that, whilst she may have be granted some money from her Mother's estate, it is a far smaller sum than the Court of Appeal awarded.
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