Dame Vera Baird and Nicole Jacobs welcome moves by the Lord Chancellor to review sentencing for women who use weapons in self-defence against their abusers

The Victims’ Commissioner and Domestic Abuse Commissioner have welcomed Ministry of Justice moves to review sentencing laws for women who use weapons against abusers in self-defence.

The Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland, has said he has asked his officials to review sentencing laws, following joint calls from the Victims’ Commissioner and Domestic Abuse Commissioner in their letter to Ministers on International Women’s Day.

Responding to the news, the Commissioners said they were “pleased by the Lord Chancellor’s thoughtful remarks” and they welcomed “his intention for his officials to review whether there are deficiencies within our justice system”. They said “the Lord Chancellor’s comments on the Today Programme are a positive development and we look forward to engaging with his policy officials on taking this forward.”

In their joint letter to the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, the Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland, and the Attorney General, Michael Ellis, the Commissioners had said they feared women are disproportionately penalised. They cited evidence from the Centre for Women’s Justice that women were more likely to use a weapon to defend themselves against an abusive partner, but this attracts a longer sentence than violence without a weapon.

Speaking on the BBC on Tuesday 9 March, Robert Buckland cited arguments by Dame Vera Baird, that women were getting “disproportionately high” sentences because they used a weapon when faced with a stronger partner abusing them.

Appearing on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, the Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland said: “For a lot of women in abusive relationships when perhaps with a stronger male partner, very often to defend themselves or to get out of a dangerous situation they have to arm themselves with some sort of weapon. There is a real worry that women are getting disproportionately high sentences as a result of it. So there are conflicting and quite clearly competing arguments here.”

“So what I want to do is to have a much more careful look at this, a review of this first of all with my officials to see what changes, if any, should be made because it will affect the way we deal with the sentencing law of murder.

“This would be quite a profound change if it was to come about and I want to make sure we get the balance right and avoid unintended consequences of the law that is a peril in this area.”

The Victims’ Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird, and Domestic Abuse Commissioner, Nicole Jacobs, said:

“We were pleased by the Lord Chancellor’s thoughtful remarks to the BBC, indicating an intention to review murder and manslaughter sentencing in domestic abuse cases.

“In particular, we welcome his intention for his officials to review whether there are deficiencies within our justice system in how it deals with women who use a weapon to fight back against a bigger and stronger male domestic abuser.

“To date, there has been little assessment of how sentencing in cases of murder and manslaughter may disadvantage women. In our letter to Ministers on International Women’s Day, we highlighted how there is insufficient acknowledgement in law or sentencing guidelines of the common imbalance in strength between perpetrator and victim. Evidence shows that women are more likely to have to resort to using a weapon when defending themselves against an abusive man, but current sentencing guidelines mean any use of a weapon is likely to result in a more serious charge and longer jail term.

“Recent research by the Centre for Women’s Justice found that there was evidence that women had suffered violence or abuse in 77 per cent of 71 cases where women killed their partners. Yet, despite this high proportion of women who have experienced abuse from the men they kill, they are unlikely to be acquitted on the basis of self-defence. Indeed, of the 92 cases analysed by the Centre for Women’s Justice, just seven per cent were acquitted. Women – who are themselves, victims – are serving lengthy jail sentences for choosing to survive.

“With this in mind, the Lord Chancellor’s comments on the Today programme are a positive development and we look forward to engaging with his policy officials on taking this forward. We also look forward to an official response to the other issues raised in our letter in due course.

“We’d also like to take this opportunity to extend our thanks to the Centre for Women’s Justice and the Femicide Census for their trailblazing research and tireless work in this area, which has undoubtedly built the foundations for this move.”