Yesterday Sally Challen won an historic appeal. She is currently serving an 18 year sentence for murdering her allegedly abusive husband. In the appeal, she asked the Court to downgrade her conviction from murder to manslaughter. She argued that his controlling behaviour was a provocation and should be taken into account in the same way that physical abuse can be taken into account. Her conviction was quashed and she now faces a retrial.
Although this is an English case, it touches on the issue of domestic abuse which knows no borders. I have been asking people over the last few days about whether they have heard of the term “coercive control”. Mostly people aren’t quite sure about what it means.
I have been thinking about some of the cases which have left a mark on me. The first time I really began thinking about coercive control (although I didn’t know the term at the time) was about 25 years ago when a woman came to see me for advice. She was pale, thin and looked weary. She worked full time. Apart from that, every moment of her life was under her husband’s scrutiny. She needed his permission before making any decisions. He insisted that she give him her wages. He then gave her bus fares to go to work. They shopped together and he paid. In spite of working, she had no access to money at all. She couldn’t buy herself a coffee. She told me that she ripped her tights at work and had to borrow money from a work colleague to buy another pair. She had been terrified to ask her husband for the money to repay what she borrowed. He didn’t believe her explanation. She bleakly asked if I could help her. I was a young, keen solicitor at the time. I had no doubt that she had grounds of divorce and I explained that. The information was overwhelming for her. She wanted to think about it before making a decision and left my office. She never came back. I still think about her and wonder if she ever left him. 25 years later I have a much better understanding of how hard that would have been.
The Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 comes into force in Scotland in April 2019. This will widen the meaning of domestic abuse by making both physical and psychological harm a criminal offence.
Not every situation will meet the test of criminal law. If you need advice about your situation and the other protections available we can help.