Writing to Ministers on International Women’s Day, the Domestic Abuse Commissioner and Victims Commissioner outline their concerns on sentencing and call for every domestic homicide to be subject to an independent review

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The Victims’ Commissioner and Domestic Abuse Commissioner have today (8 March) criticised a “culture of misogyny throughout the criminal justice system”, which they say can be evidenced in falling criminal justice outcomes for crimes that disproportionately affect women.

This is “clearly demonstrated in the response to domestic homicides,” the Commissioners say.

Writing to Ministers on International Women’s Day, Dame Vera Baird QC and Nicole Jacobs are using their joint letter to call for every domestic homicide to be subject to an independent review, known as a domestic homicide review (DHR).

They are also urging the Government to review murder and manslaughter sentences in domestic abuse cases.

In the letter to the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, the Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland, and the Attorney General, Michael Ellis, the Commissioners write: “We are very concerned that the 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 Commissioners cite the recent case in South Wales of Anthony Williams as one such example. Mr Williams was sentenced to just 5 years for the manslaughter of his wife, Ruth Williams, on the grounds of diminished responsibility following the introduction of the first Covid-19 lockdown.

This compares with the life sentence that Sally Challen received in 2011, which was eventually quashed and reduced to a manslaughter charge with a fourteen-year jail term, of which she served nine years in prison. Sally Challen killed her husband after facing years of abuse and was initially convicted of murder.

The two Commissioners write: “When compared to the 5-year sentence handed down to Anthony Williams for killing his wife Ruth, it is difficult to understand the discrepancy.”

The Commissioners say they fear women are disproportionately penalised. They cite 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.

They say there is insufficient acknowledgement in current law or sentencing of the common imbalance in physical strength between perpetrator and victim and use of a weapon is far more likely to be a necessity if it is in response to a stronger perpetrator, yet this is not recognised.

In addition to calls for a review of past sentences with links to domestic abuse, the letter also calls for every domestic homicide to be subject to an independent review. They expressed their concern that the Home Office had agreed that a DHR was not necessary in the case of Ruth Williams.

Under the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act (2004) a domestic homicide review (DHR) must be carried out when a person who is aged 16 or over is killed by a relative, household member or an intimate partner (or former partner). The duty also applies in cases of suicide where domestic abuse may have been a cause.

“Our view is that every domestic homicide should be subject to a review, to bring together partners locally and understand what went wrong.”

In addition, the Commissioners are calling for an independent national oversight mechanism for DHRs. This would sit within the Domestic Abuse Commissioner’s office and ensure the right questions are asked following a domestic homicide or suicide and that recommendations are implemented to prevent future deaths.

The Commissioners say that the Domestic Abuse Bill, which returns to the House of Lords on International Women’s Day (Monday 8th March), would offer this opportunity.

“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,” urge the Commissioners.