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Domestic violence: Change in sentencing guidelines a step forward
The government has finally issued new guidelines to judges and courts on sentencing for manslaughter. The guidelines should lead to better and more consistent judgements of when murder can be commuted to manslaughter and remove the worst anomalies in the previous system.
Eleanor Donne, National chair, Campaign Against Domestic Violence (CADV)
This follows the Law Commission's review of Defences to Murder, which made particular reference to domestic violence. This was both in terms of the large numbers of women killed by their partners (two per week on average) and how the law treats women who have killed their partners, having suffered in many cases years of abuse from them.
The new guidelines don't change the law (1957 Homicide Act) but effectively define what courts should (and shouldn't) take into account to reduce a charge from murder to manslaughter and to decide the length of sentence for manslaughter.
For the first time, previous experience of abuse and/or domestic violence is outlined specifically as a mitigating factor and the guidelines make it clear that evidence of infidelity should not be seen as a high provocation.
Traditionally, sentences for (mostly) men who kill out of jealous rage have been light, but under new sentencing guidelines the experience of violence or fear of violence is more of a defence than anger or sexual jealousy alone. This is to be welcomed but it remains to be seen how well the rules are implemented by judges. Funding should be made available to train judges, barristers and all court staff on issues relating to domestic violence.
The Campaign Against Domestic Violence (CADV), formed by Socialist Party members (then known as Militant Labour) in 1991, has long called for changes in the law on manslaughter/defences to murder and welcomes these guidelines as a step forward.
The catalyst for our wider campaign on domestic violence was the unequal treatment of two people who had killed their partners. One, Joseph McGrail, walked free from court, having successfully used the defence that his wife had 'nagged' him and he had 'snapped'. The other, Sarah Thornton, suffered violence and abuse throughout her marriage but lost her appeal against a life sentence for murder. She was eventually released after a widespread campaign, proving that even judges are not immune from changing social attitudes.
It is rare for a woman to kill her partner, but of the small numbers that do, the majority have suffered longstanding and often extreme violence at the hands of that partner. Yet, the laws on self-defence and provocation (to reduce a charge from murder to manslaughter) have been woefully inadequate for women in this position. They are based historically on men's general behaviour and conditioning, requiring you to show sudden anger, temporary loss of control and the use of 'reasonable force'.
This has made it very difficult for even the most well-meaning lawyers to build a case for a woman who may have acted after the 'heat of the moment' because she was physically smaller, not conditioned to fight back or terrified rather than angry. Women often had to rely on a plea of 'diminished responsibility', placing all the emphasis on their personality and mental state.
We would hope that the new guidelines make it easier for a woman to argue that she acted in self-defence or under provocation, which implies some acceptance from society for her actions.
In spite of campaigning and lobbying by ourselves and by other groups, as well as many in the legal profession, the government have been very reluctant to address these archaic laws. Sadly, although some women have been released after appeal or re-trial many more will have been given life sentences in the time it has taken for the Home Office to issue these new guidelines. We are calling on the government to carry out a thorough review of all murder cases where domestic violence has been a factor.
Killing your violent partner is obviously a desperate act and one which a very small number of women take if they feel there is absolutely no alternative. Statistically a woman will be hit around 35 times before she goes to the police and is even more at risk of violence and being killed after she has left her partner. Many feel justifiably that the police and the courts do not offer them proper protection.
Changing laws is important but it is just as vital to campaign to ensure that practical and legal solutions are not just there on paper but in reality. Resources are necessary, such as outreach advice centres, more refuges and safe houses, training for police and the courts, affordable housing and decent wages and benefits so that women do not face a 'choice' of living in fear of violence or poverty and social exclusion.
In The Socialist 8 December 2005: