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DNA used to challenge a title

It was one of those cases where the first child takes something less than nine months to produce and all subsequent children take a full nine months.

The marriage was on the 16th of October 1902.

The birth of the first child — a son — was on the 13th of May 1903.

Seven months later.

And therein lies the tale — and it opened a can of worms that, it appears, will lead to the first use of DNA to upset a hereditary title in Great Britain.

Earl EBecause the man who holds that honorary title at the moment isn’t the man whose DNA says he should hold it.

And answering that question means asking all kinds of other questions… like how long ago is too long ago to ask questions about paternity anyway.

The story here actually begins back in 1683, when King Charles II created a new baronetcy: “a hereditary title awarded by the British Crown … not a peerage … Baronets are not formally deemed noble, although they are widely regarded as being members of the aristocracy. In Europe their social rank is roughly equivalent to petite noblesse.”1

In this case, it was the Baronetcy of Stichill, and it was given to Robert Pringle of Stichill “ac heredibus masculis de suo corpore” (“and the male heirs of his body”).

And the question comes down to this: who is the male heir to Robert Pringle who’s entitled to be the baronet today?

It came up in a case decided just this week in the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (“the final court of appeal for a number of Commonwealth countries, the crown dependencies and United Kingdom overseas territories”2). Two rival claimants both claiming descent from the eighth baronet, Sir Norman Robert Pringle. One — Simon Robert Pringle (“Simon”) — descended from that son born in 1903. The other — Norman Murray Archibald MacGregor Pringle (“Murray”) — from a second son, born in 1905.

The Privy Council came down on the side of the descendant of the second son — and it did so, for the very first time in a case like this, based on DNA.3

The facts as set out by the Privy Council were:

• “No question has been raised as to who were the male heirs of the first baronet of Stichill until events which occurred in the early 20th century. The eighth baronet was Sir Norman Robert Pringle, who lived from 1871 till 1919. On 16 October 1902 the eighth baronet married Florence Madge Vaughan. She gave birth to a son, Norman Hamilton Pringle, on 13 May 1903. She later gave birth to two further sons, Ronald Steuart Pringle, who was born on 26 April 1905 and was the father of the claimant, Murray, and James Drummond Pringle who was born on 12 April 1906. She also gave birth to a daughter, Mary Elizabeth Pringle, in 1916.”4

• “The claimant, Murray, has asserted that Norman Hamilton Pringle was not the son of the eighth baronet and that accordingly the second son, Ronald Steuart Pringle, (Murray’s father) was the male heir of the first baronet. Ronald Steuart Pringle died on 24 July 1968. Murray claims that as a result he then became and now is the male heir of the first baronet.”5

• “Simon is the grandson of Norman Hamilton Pringle, who married Winifred Olive Curran on 15 September 1927. Winifred Olive Pringle gave birth to Simon’s father, Steuart Robert Pringle on 21 July 1928.”6

• “Norman Hamilton Pringle was enrolled without opposition as the ninth baronet. He died on 8 February 1961. After the death of his father, Steuart Robert Pringle was enrolled without opposition as the tenth baronet in 1961.”7

• There had been rumblings in the Pringle family that that first-born 1903 baby wasn’t really the child of the eighth baronet but nothing had been done or filed legally to challenge his or his descendants’ status.8

• In 2009-2010, Murray as head of a Pringle DNA surname project got Steuart Robert Pringle to submit a DNA sample “to determine the chieftainship of the clan Pringle.” The results showed that descendants of that first son born in 1903 — Norman Hamilton Pringle — didn’t match the descendants of the second and third sons — Ronald Steuart Pringle and James Drummond Pringle — or any other Pringles.9

The DNA evidence is powerful — and it’s uncontested. But the law also has a very powerful presumption that a child born during a marriage is legitimate and there’s a lot to be said (and it was all said, by the lawyers for the current baronet) for leaving things alone when so much time has gone by.10

The Privy Council went with the DNA.

First, it concluded that, both under Scottish law and English law, the presumption of legitimacy can be overcome with scientific evidence to the contrary.11

Second, it concluded that there wasn’t any statute of limitations for an honorary title. While some issues, like title to land, have to be challenged within a certain time frame, when it came to a right like a baronetcy, the passage of time wasn’t a bar to making a claim.12

Third, it concluded that the challenger wasn’t personally barred from making his claim by the passage of time because — even though there were those rumblings in the family — he couldn’t have known for sure about his rights until he got the DNA results.13

Finally, it rejected the current baronet’s claim that the DNA evidence shouldn’t be allowed because the test was “only for establishing the leader of the clan Pringle, that Murray had obtained the DNA on a false premise, and that he had breached (Simon’s father’s) confidence.”14 It said:

The claim of Sir Steuart Pringle to be the clan chief depended on his status as the senior member of the branch of the Pringle family who were entitled to claim the baronetcy of Pringle of Stichill. He was aware that he was contributing to a genealogical record. Sir Steuart in his letter of 13 December 2009 … consented to the use of his DNA to ascertain his entitlement to be clan chief. DNA Heritage had sent a letter to all participants explaining who the project administrator was and that the administrator (ie Murray) would be able to see the status of each individual member of the group. … In the Board’s view, Sir Steuart Pringle must be taken to have been aware that … if his DNA were to exclude him from a claim to be the clan chief, it might also form the basis of a challenge to his entitlement to the baronetcy. … (T)here is no question of dishonesty or deception on Murray’s part. Sir Steuart Pringle consented to the ascertainment of his DNA for genealogical purposes which were intimately connected to his entitlement to the baronetcy. The evidence is of central importance to the establishment of an entitlement to an ancient title of honour.15

And the bottom line: “The DNA evidence, which was obtained from Sir Steuart Pringle and the other members of the Pringle family who submitted samples, demonstrates to a high degree of probability that Norman Hamilton Pringle, who is Simon Robert Pringle’s grandfather, was not the son of the eighth baronet. … The Board … concludes that Simon Robert Pringle is not the great grandson of the eighth baronet and is not the heir male of the first baronet. The Board also concludes that Norman Murray Archibald MacGregor Pringle is the grandson of the eighth baronet and is, as the heir male of the first baronet, entitled to succeed to the baronetcy of Pringle of Stichill.”16

So… a can of worms for sure. But not opened without an understanding of the impacts on lives. Because, the Board went on, it “cannot conclude without expressing its sympathy for the late Sir Steuart Pringle, a distinguished officer, who faced an unwelcome challenge in his autumnal years, and also Simon Robert Pringle, the heir presumptive, who had grown up in the belief that his father was rightfully the tenth baronet and that he would in time succeed to the baronetcy.”17

And, it continued:

In the past, the absence of scientific evidence meant that the presumption of legitimacy could rarely be rebutted and claims based on assertions that irregular procreations had occurred in the distant past were particularly difficult to establish. Not so now. It is not for the Board to express any view on what social policy should be. It notes the ability of DNA evidence 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.18

We’ll have to see whether the political forces step in to answer these sorts of questions.

Raised now, for the first time, using DNA evidence.


SOURCES

Note: Thanks to Paul Milner for sending along a copy of the decision.

  1. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “baronet,” rev. 11 June 2016.
  2. FAQs,” The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) (https://www.jcpc.uk/ : accessed 25 June 2016).
  3. Judgment, In the matter of the Baronetcy of Pringle of Stichill, 20 June 2016; Trinity Term (2016) UKPC 16, Privy Council Reference No 0079 of 2015; PDF, The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) (https://www.jcpc.uk/ : accessed 25 June 2016).
  4. Ibid., paragraph 5.
  5. Ibid., paragraph 6.
  6. Ibid., paragraph 7.
  7. Ibid., paragraph 8.
  8. Ibid., paragraphs 9-11.
  9. Ibid., paragraph 12-14, 17-19.
  10. See ibid., paragraphs 21-23.
  11. Ibid., paragraphs 30-41.
  12. Ibid., paragraphs 42-61.
  13. Ibid., paragraphs 62-64.
  14. Ibid., paragraphs 65-66.
  15. Ibid., paragraphs 67, 78.
  16. Ibid., paragraph 82.
  17. Ibid., paragraph 84.
  18. Ibid., paragraph 85.
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