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Joint letter from Victims’ Commissioner and Domestic Abuse Commissioner on domestic homicide

Domestic Homicides: justice for victims and preventing future deaths

Dear Home Secretary, Lord Chancellor and Attorney General

As the Commissioners for Domestic Abuse and Victims in England and Wales, we write to you to call for greater recognition of the devastation caused by domestic homicide, and for a programme of work to address deficiencies across the criminal justice system and statutory services.

We have seen the effects of a culture of misogyny throughout the criminal justice system, to the detriment of women across England and Wales. This is evidenced by falling criminal justice outcomes for crimes that disproportionately affect women, particularly rape. This is clearly demonstrated in the response to domestic homicides, and so we are calling for a review into domestic homicide sentences and that all domestic homicides and suicides are subject to a domestic homicide review.

Investigations, defences and sentencing

We are very concerned that some sentences received by men who kill their female partners or ex-partners do not reflect the seriousness of domestic abuse, nor do they reflect the fact that these homicides often follow a period of prolonged abuse. The Sentencing Council’s guideline is based on the appreciation by the criminal judiciary that offences committed in a domestic context should be taken more, not less, seriously. However, this does not appear to be translating either into the quality of criminal investigations, the effort made in challenging defences or in the sentencing exercise when men are convicted.

Grounds of diminished responsibility, often claimed by defendants in domestic homicide cases, can allow perpetrators to mask the realities of these offences. What will be claimed as a loss of control due to a mental health issue appears to blunt police professional curiosity. There is abundant research to demonstrate that many apparently sudden femicides are, in fact the culmination of a hidden history of control and abuse.

Domestic abuse is a hidden crime which the police still poorly understand. There has been widespread and severe academic criticism of the approach taken in the Anthony Williams case and there was strong outrage from survivors of abuse whose experience has key parallels with those of his victim. Of course, this trial is now concluded. However, whilst the diagnosis underpinning his defence was disputed, there was limited consideration of domestic abuse, which must go beyond asking family members if they were aware of abuse.

We are concerned Mr Williams’ case might set a dangerous precedent and not only in the failure to take on the issue of potential abuse. This was the first trial for a domestic homicide that happened during the Covid-19 pandemic, when as ministers are well aware, there appears to have been a surge both in the quantity and in some cases, the gravity of domestic abuse. Mr Williams defence was that he was suffering from a mental health episode due to the stress of lockdown. That defence was successful, despite the homicide occurring just a few days into the first national lockdown. We would not want this case to set a trend for defendants to use the stresses of lockdown as a justification or a defence for killing, and this resulting in more lenient sentences. We have always been clear that poor mental health or stress does not cause domestic abuse. Perpetrators choose to abuse. Further, it is well understood by expert domestic abuse organisations that perpetrators of abuse are very manipulative, quite obviously because they have practised totally controlling the victim and excluding all routes to assistance whilst presenting themselves as good citizens to others, often for many years. It is vital the government, and the criminal justice system, remains firm on this point.

It is right that in sentencing offenders, courts consider their previous good character and likewise any relevant previous convictions they hold. However, we are concerned this often fails to reflect the realities of domestic abuse. We have been in contact with families bereaved by domestic abuse where the sentences given to their daughters’ murderers are far more lenient than compared to sentences typically given in other homicide cases. Many defendants in domestic abuse cases are seemingly of good character because the majority of domestic abuse is never reported, with only around 20% of victims reporting to the police.

Given the likelihood that there are no relevant previous convictions – and with falling criminal justice outcomes, this is even more likely – we are concerned that sentences for domestic abuse offences will fail to reflect the history of abuse.

The sentence handed down to Anthony Williams was a clear example of this; he was sentenced to just 5 years for manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, the judge finding, for no apparent reason except that his behaviour was unexpected, that his responsibility was very low.

The lack of understanding of domestic abuse which we fear has the effects set out above is also of huge concern in relation to the sentences received by women who kill their partners in self-defence, or after a long period of abuse. Their punishments can appear disproportionate. Sally Challen is a key example. She killed her husband after years of abuse, and was originally convicted of murder, but that verdict was quashed on appeal. On pleading guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, ahead of a proposed re-trial, she was sentenced to 9 years and 4 months. In her case, the mental abnormality was worsened, if not completely caused, by the violence and control which had been inflicted on her virtually throughout her entire married life. She offers a fairly clear picture of a woman whose responsibility had been systematically undermined until it was almost absent and yet there was no assessment that her responsibility was very low.

It is difficult to understand the discrepancy between this sentence and the sentence given for the killing of Ruth Williams.

One difference which could be cited concern sentencing guidelines which consider the use of a weapon to be an aggravating factor. Quite obviously, Williams had the weapons he needed in order to strangle his wife, readily available at the end of his arms, fuelled by his masculine strength. It is curious not to reflect that imbalance of strength and power in sentencing, while at the same time disproportionately punishing weaker women, who do not have the strength to resist and feel that they have to take up a weapon. We know the use of a weapon by a woman is usually because of previous abuse and the physical reality of an imbalance of strength. We would therefore question why this would be considered an aggravating factor in this situation.

We are also concerned that self-defence, which is often the reality of where a woman kills their abuser, becomes murder if the use of a weapon tips it over into the appearance of being disproportionate. This is notwithstanding an imbalance of strength and often a long-term exposure to the violent use of that extra strength. We would request serious consideration be made to extending self-defence in domestic abuse cases where victims feel they have to use weapons to cover any disproportionality in that reaction. Surely disproportionate self-defence should be as available for a victim of domestic abuse defending her body as it is for ‘An Englishman defending his castle’ which is the formula which gave rise to the legal changes following the Tony Martin case (enacted in S76 Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008).

We are concerned that what we have said about domestic abuse being poorly understood by police applies to judges and this ‘background of abuse’ mitigation is not given adequate weight and consequently results in higher sentences.

We are pleased the Government is now recognising men’s ‘hands’ can be a deadly weapon by criminalising non-fatal strangulation through the Domestic Abuse Bill. This of course will not impact upon sentencing in domestic homicide cases so the sentencing guidelines for manslaughter should also recognise the seriousness of strangulation by making this an aggravating factor in domestic homicides.

The Centre for Women’s Justice found that 77% of women who killed their partner or ex-partner had been subject to abuse from the person they killed. This is why it is vital that a specific statutory defence is introduced through the Domestic Abuse Bill to recognise the effect of domestic abuse on victims who offend.

Preventing future deaths

Not only must perpetrators be brought to justice swiftly and fairly, but we must learn from the tragedy of domestic homicide to prevent future deaths. Robust Domestic Homicide Reviews (DHRs) are a key part of this, and we were concerned to hear the Home Office had agreed that a DHR was not necessary after Ruth Williams’ death. Our view is that every domestic homicide should be subject to a review, to bring together partners locally and understand what went wrong. The idea that a review was not necessary because a similar review had already been done not only misunderstands the need for them (clearly, lessons had not been sufficiently learnt) but fails to recognise the specific experience of Ruth and her family.

Therefore, we continue to call for a strong national oversight mechanism for domestic homicides, which would sit within the Domestic Abuse Commissioner’s Office, independently of Government. This is crucial to ensure that the right questions are asked following a domestic homicide or suicide, and that recommendations are implemented effectively and embedded locally to prevent future deaths. We therefore welcome the amendments laid by the Government to support this endeavour, but it must go further. DHRs alone do not give the full picture, and we are calling for all relevant reports to be shared with the Domestic Abuse Commissioner and her office, including Coroner’s reports, Serious Case Reviews and other relevant reports and reviews conducted by a range of statutory agencies.

In summary, we remain concerned about the response to domestic homicides, and call for the Government to conduct a review into domestic homicides and introduce an oversight mechanism through the Domestic Abuse Commissioner’s office. The review should include all of the factors we have referred to here and there may well be others which experts in the field would wish also to be considered. We would specifically like to see a comparison between sentences for domestic homicides compared to non-domestic homicides (both murder and manslaughter convictions), which should be disaggregated by gender and other protected characteristics.

We would welcome a meeting with Ministers and officials to discuss this, so we can all work together to better bring perpetrators to justice and protect victims.

Yours Sincerely

Nicole Jacobs, Domestic Abuse Commissioner for England and Wales and Dame Vera Baird QC, Victims Commissioner for England and Wales