A history of coercive or controlling behaviour is set to become a statutory mitigating factor to better protect domestic abuse victims who kill their abuser, the Ministry of Justice has said.
This comes as amongst a set of changes to the law around domestic homicide following Clare Wade KC’s Domestic Homicide Sentencing Review which was published last week.
The reforms will also create new aggravating factors for murder at the end of a relationship, overkill and use of excessive violence, and a history of coercive or controlling behaviour.
Research shows that around one in four homicides are committed by a current or former partner or relative.
“Cowards who murder their partners should face the full force of the law,” said Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary Alex Chalk KC, adding:
“Our reforms will give judges the power to punish murderers for the added pain and trauma they inflict through ‘overkill’ as well as ensuring that those who coercively control their victims or kill them at the end of a relationship face longer behind bars.”
The government will also ask the Law Commission to review the use of defences in domestic homicide cases. This will look at whether the gender of the defendant impacts how successful these defences are – with the Wade Review suggesting that female defendants are less successful than men. This includes examining the partial defences of “loss of control” and “diminished responsibility” and whether the law adequately considers circumstances where a victim of domestic abuse acts in self-defence.
Other measures announced by the government include:
- Continuing to improve the collection and recording of data on domestic homicides in England and Wales to identify patterns, trends, and risk factors via the Domestic Homicide Review Library
- Working with partners to implement and improve mandatory training for Crown Prosecution Service staff on understanding coercive control
- Consulting on a 25-year starting point for coercive or controlling behaviour and sentencing for murders which take place with a weapon found at the scene
- Writing to the Sentencing Council to propose that they review their guidelines for manslaughter sentencing in light of Clare Wade’s recommendations and the government’s response
Of the murder cases reviewed by Clare Wade KC, 51% involved controlling or coercive behaviour while excessive violence, or overkill, was identified in 60%, with men being the perpetrator in all but one case. 48% were caused in part by feelings of jealousy or resentment at the end of the relationship.
The Ministry of Justice said legislation to implement these changes to the sentencing framework “will be laid as soon as parliamentary time allows”.
Domestic Abuse Commissioner Nicole Jacobs said:
“I welcome the publication of the Government’s response to the Review. In particular, I am pleased that the Government have committed to introducing a range of new statutory aggravating factors to ensure that the circumstances surrounding domestic murders are given adequate legal weight when considering sentencing. I look forward to continuing to work with the Government on the implementation of the review recommendations and feeding into work by the Law Commission on the review of defences to murders involving domestic abuse.”
Farah Nazeer, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, also welcomed the changes as “an important step forward in recognising the seriousness of domestic homicide”:
“We know that the end of a relationship with an abuser poses severe danger to a woman’s life. Murder is not ‘a loss of control’, but instead a perpetrator taking ultimate control over a woman’s life, and it is important to finally see this reflected in sentences handed down by the courts. We are also pleased to see a mitigating factor being introduced for those who kill their partners due to their experiences of coercive control – this is critical for ensuring women in such circumstances are not unfairly punished after facing years of abuse.
Sentencing is one important part of the picture, but there are many more. Training on the complexities of coercive control is essential across all parts of the justice system – including for judges, prosecutors and police officers. We continue to push for wider reform of the criminal justice system to ensure long term safety, independence and justice for all women who have experienced domestic abuse and other forms of violence against women and girls. For too long murders committed ‘in the home’ have been seen as less serious and it is vital that this changes – immediately.”