Women who hit back against abusive partners or commit crimes on their behalf such as handling stolen goods or hiding weapons should be allowed to rely on a new defence of coercion, according to campaigners.
The Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ) is calling for the change to recognise the “devastating impact” that controlling relationships can have and the lack of legal protection for domestic abuse victims who are driven to offend.
Harriet Wistrich, the solicitor who founded the centre, won a landmark coercive control appeal in 2019 in which her client Sally Challen’s conviction for murdering her abusive husband was quashed. The legal team argued that Challen had been controlled by her husband for more than 30 years before she battered him to death with a hammer.
Now Wistrich is calling on the government to amend its Domestic Abuse Bill, which reaches its report stage in the House of Lords today, to extend coercion as a defence for a range of crimes.
These would include assault against an abusive partner or ex-partner, possession of a controlled substance belonging to an abusive partner, carrying a knife on their behalf, theft offences to pay for drugs and alcohol used by them, and taking drugs into prison for an abusive partner.
Campaigners say that coercive control creates “invisible chains and a sense of fear that pervades all elements of a victim’s life”. While victims can rely on the common law defence of duress, it is harder to prove and they need to be under threat of violence. The CWJ says the law needs to take into account that long histories of abuse can result in violence or other crimes.
Domestic abuse-related offences recorded by police forces in England and Wales rose by 10 per cent to more than 842,000 in the year ending last September, despite overall crime falling in the pandemic.
The government is facing various amendments to its bill to reflect such abuse. A second change, also supported by the CWJ, would give domestic abuse victims the same rights that homeowners have when confronting dangerous burglars. It would allow them to use disproportionate force in self-defence.
Claire Waxman, the victims’ commissioner for London, also wants changes to stop perpetrators using the family courts to continue abusing and controlling their victims. She has called for mandatory annual training for judges and legal staff working in the family courts so they can detect when perpetrators are using legal mechanisms to inflict psychological abuse.
Barristers have revealed that children who have given evidence against an abusive parent are being forced to continue seeing that parent against their wishes.
In one instance a judge ordered parent contact agreements to take place while the victim was at a domestic abuse refuge, revealing its location. The perpetrator was able to stalk their victim and abduct the child abroad.