London, England–Many of you have written to me about the new English law proposal which will make it easier for allegedly abused women who plan the murders of their husbands to defend themselves legally. I discussed the proposals and the general issue of domestic violence on the BBC last week.
According to the article Go soft on killer wives: Women who kill in cold blood could escape murder charge (Daily Mail, 7/29/08), under the new law:
Women who kill abusive partners in cold blood could escape a murder conviction if they prove they feared more violence. Under a major government review, they will be punished for the lesser offence of manslaughter, sparing them a mandatory life sentence. They must establish only that they were responding to a ‘slow burn’ of abuse.
The change sweeps aside the existing requirement in any defence of provocation that they killed on the spur of the moment after a ‘sudden’ loss of control.
In cases where a husband kills, the existing ‘partial defence’ of provocation if a wife was having an affair is scrapped altogether.
The Ministry of Justice said this was in response to long-standing concerns that the centuries- old measure impacts differently on men and women. In the first major changes to homicide laws in 50 years, ministers have ruled that other categories of killer, as well as domestic violence victims, should be offered new partial defences of provocation.
They include those ‘seriously wronged’ by an insult.
Beneficiaries of this change may include those who strike out after long and bitter disputes with neighbours, or victims of a serious crime who are taunted at a later date by the attacker.
Instead of receiving a mandatory life sentence for murder, they too could escape with a manslaughter conviction. Women’s groups had long campaigned for changes to the law to protect victims of domestic violence who hit back in desperation.
But the proposed new partial defence for killers who feel ‘seriously wronged’ by ‘words and conduct’ took experts completely by surprise.
Robert Whelan of the Civitas think-tank accused Ministers of introducing ‘gang law’ into the legal system.
He said: ‘To take someone’s life because they say something that offends you is the law of gang culture.
‘Are we really going to introduce into our criminal justice system that it is a defence to say “I was insulted”?’
He also voiced concern about the plan to give special protection to certain groups.
Mr Whelan said: ‘By creating all these special categories, the Government are making some people more equal than others before the law.
‘It seems some lives are worth more than others.’
Lyn Costello of Mothers Against Murder and Aggression described the changes as ‘utter madness’.
She warned: ‘We need clear laws, not more grey areas. This is not the sort of message to send out.
‘You will have some very clever lawyers who will twist this around to suit their clients.
‘Unless there are really exceptional circumstances, such as self defence or protecting yourself or family, then there is no excuse for killing someone and it should be murder.’
I don’t claim to be an expert on this new proposal, but I do believe it is a problem. One of the points I made on the BBC is that there is a huge, huge difference between being “seriously wronged” by “words” and being “seriously wronged” by “conduct.” Yet this new law seems to lump the two together.
If a mitigating factor in murder comes down to a woman feeling “seriously wronged” by her deceased husband’s alleged “words,” no woman who kills her husband will ever be convicted of murder. I also wonder what conduct is necessary to allow this defense, and what proof will be needed that such conduct actually took place.
As an aside, while laws and morality are two different things, I can’t help but think that what this law implies will also be harmful. Some women already have the bad habit of feeling continually wrong by the men in their life or by men in general. It’s possible that this law will in effect say to them “Yes, you’ve been wronged. And no, it doesn’t matter that your husband did not physically abuse you (i.e. ‘conduct’). He wronged you with his words, so harming him is okay.”
One of the points I made on the BBC is that the problems and challenges faced by abused women vary greatly from country to country. I have no doubt that there are countries where a sorry excuse for a man can beat his wife continually and make her life miserable and know that there is little likelihood that the police or the government will do much to protect his wife or to stop him. However, England is not one of those countries. Nor is the United States, nor the countries of Europe.
There are many, many provisions and policies in place to help protect abused women. I could see this law as being fair if it only applied to women who are battered and who already exhausted these remedies and still found themselves stalked by their batterers.
I pointed out that in the United States a woman who feels she is being mistreated can have her husband kicked out of his own home and barred from contacting her or his children simply on her word alone. That certainly is not to say that there aren’t abused women who try and fail to escape their abusers, but there are many options besides murder.
Erin Pizzey discussed the new law in a recent column Erin Pizzey, champion of women’s rights, says radical feminist plans to let victims of domestic abuse get away with murder are an affront to morality (7/29/08).
Erin makes some good points. However, while I have great respect for her, the article would have been more enlightening and convincing had she stuck to the facts and details of the new law, as opposed to devoting much of the article to venting her long-standing grudge against English feminists. (I’ve discussed Pizzey’s good work on many occasions — to learn more, click here.)