July 10, 2020

When Kasabian singer Tom Meighan attacked his ex-partner Vikki Ager in April perhaps he thought nothing would come of it. After all, according to every scrap of evidence from domestic violence charities and national crime surveys, the majority of such incidents are never even reported. Indeed, in this case the victim, according to the judge, has not made a statement to police “and does not appear to support this prosecution”.

Meighan’s attack was sustained and vicious, including punching her in the face, pushing her into a hamster cage and threatening her with a wooden pallet while repeatedly knocking her over. A child witnessed the “sustained assault”, the court was told, and contacted 999 to report that a “domestic incident was taking place”. The attack was captured on CCTV and produced in court.

The judge, in sentencing Meighan, said, “I could have sent you to prison for this,” before handing down an 18-month community order and told to carry out 200 hours of unpaid work. So why didn’t he send Meighan to prison?

Because whether or not an abused woman speaks up against her abuser, there’s one thing that is indisputable when it comes to domestic abuse: the bodies in the morgue. Every three days a woman dies at the hands of her partner or ex-partner, and under Covid-19 lockdown that number has increased.

Five weeks into lockdown, the number of women killed by men was almost twice that of the average over the same time period during the past 11 years. The UN were so concerned they referred to domestic violence as a “shadow pandemic”. Even once lockdown lifts, and things go ‘back to normal’, almost one in three women aged 16-59 will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime.

This week, in order to address the problem, a ground-breaking Domestic Abuse Bill received its third reading in the House of Commons. It is a “once in a generation” opportunity to tackle the prevalence, protect the victims, and punish the perpetrators. It brings with it a new statutory definition of ‘domestic abuse’ and a range of measures designed to protect millions of victims. It is, for them, long awaited and will be celebrated.

But the Bill has limitations.

Karen Ingala Smith is the founder of Counting Dead Women which documents all women killed by men. For Ingala Smith, lockdown did not cause an increase in the number of abusive men, but it did give some a new tool with which to control women, and a further excuse for their behaviour.

“The normalisation and acceptance of men’s fatal violence against women is part of the problem,” says Ingala Smith, “and partly why it continues.”

She thinks that the bill doesn’t recognise sufficiently the fact that victims routinely try to protect themselves by doing what violent men demand — and often end up committing crimes. Many victims of domestic abuse also become victims of an unforgiving judicial system. A double blight.

Shockingly, almost 60% of women in prison or under community supervision are victims of domestic abuse, and for a significant number, domestic violence was a trigger to their offending. But current legal defences do not protect these women from prosecution or conviction.

Women being financially controlled by abusive men can often be compelled to steal food and other essential items. Others, some of whom I have met in prison during my work with Justice for Women, were coerced into benefit fraud; holding a weapon or drugs for an abuser; or defending themselves against their abuser.

Nearly half of women in prison report having committed offences to support someone else’s drug use, usually a partner’s. The Prison Reform Trust (PRT), presents evidence of how domestic abuse can lead victims to offend in its briefing, ‘There’s a reason we’re in trouble’.

That’s why campaigners are still fighting for amendments as the Bill goes to the Lords. One such is a proposal by the supported by the PRT and the Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ) to address a significant gap in the law by creating statutory defences for survivors who offend due to their experience of domestic abuse.

The first clause would amend the law on self-defence, so that victims of domestic abuse acting in self-defence against their abuser would have the same legal protection that is already available to householders defending themselves against an intruder. The second would introduce a statutory defence for victims of domestic abuse giving them the same legal protection offered by the Modern Slavery Act for victims of trafficking who are compelled to offend (for example by being trafficked and compelled to work in a cannabis factory).

Jenny Earle from the PRT tells me that having specific defences on the statute book will ensure that fewer women are prosecuted and convicted of offences when they should instead be receiving support to exit a frightening relationship.

As this Bill progresses through the House of Lords, Baroness [Helena] Kennedy will be tabling these amendments.  “Legislative opportunities don’t come around too often,” says Baroness Kennedy. “We should seize the moment and align the protections with those given to victims in other legislation.”

Sarah had taken out numerous non-molestation orders against her ex-partner. She had moved home twice to escape her abuser and had a panic alarm fitted. The police had been called to more than 50 reports of domestic violence at the address.

On the night of the incident, her ex-partner broke into her house, and ordered her to take off her clothes. Sarah stabbed him in the belief he was about to rape her. She was initially charged with murder, which was changed to manslaughter with diminished responsibility. Sarah was given a 7-year 3-month prison sentence. If the proposed new clause to self-defence was available might have enabled her to be acquitted completely or not prosecuted at all, like Richard Osborn-Brookes, a 78 year old man who killed a burglar he feared would harm him.

For self-defence to succeed, it is necessary to show that the defendant used force that was proportionate to the threat faced. The ‘householder’ defence was introduced following the case of Tony Martin, a farmer who killed a burglar who was trespassing on his premises. It was in response to public concern raised that a person who is defending his property should not be punished for doing so. The defence allows for a disproportionate, but not ‘grossly disproportionate’ response, recognising the level of fear and hyper-vigilance that may be experienced by the victim of the burglary could lead to a disproportionate use of force,

In fact for women in domestic violence relationships, that level of hyper-vigilance combined with their knowledge of the repeat pattern of behaviour, can and often does equally apply.

“There can be no justification for more favourable treatment in law for the householder,” says Harriet Wistrich, Director of the CWJ. “It is discriminatory and imperative that a similar defence should be available to victims of domestic abuse. Women should not be punished for totally understandable reactions to violence.”

The second defence, modelled on the Modern Slavery Act would provide a defence for women compelled to offend by their abuser.

Annie is one such woman. Having been coerced into assisting her abusive partner to evade the police after he committed a murder, she was charged with perverting the course of justice. Following the murder, the perpetrator called Annie and demanded she drove him to his lodgings, and to give him money and a pay-as-you-go mobile.

For Annie, the mental torture was far worse than the physical abuse. She is now diagnosed with serious emotional disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder. “Because of his abuse I had turned off every emotion to protect myself, and I would have done anything he asked me to,” she says. “But the CPS are carrying on the abuse and I feel I’m still under his control.”

The CPS accepts that she was not involved with the murder at all, and that her actions did not help him evade the police, and he has since been convicted of murder. But it still intends to put her on trial for her actions following the murder.

“I did nothing wrong,” says Annie. “He held a knife at me the whole time I was driving him, threatening me the whole way, and yet I am the one that committed a crime?”

Irina is a Romanian woman who came to the UK on the promise that a Pakistani man she had met online would help find her work in the UK once they were married. In fact, he wanted to marry Irina so that he could depend on her for a spousal visa, as his was about to expire. The abuse began immediately: he did not help Irina find work and treated her like a slave throughout their 8-year marriage.

Irina had made previous allegations to the police about his abuse, including rape, but police took no action against him. Irina became very distressed one day and hit him with a cricket bat. She was charged with assault by beating. Irina has a psychiatric diagnosis of PTSD arising from the abuse but nevertheless, the CPS have decided it is in the public interest to prosecute her.

These stories are rarely heard — these stories of women trapped within the criminal justice system. Instead, we read about high-profile celebrity cases and men who are spared such incarceration by the silence of their victims.

But what about those women who are compelled by their abusers to break the law? What about the prisons teeming with those victims of domestic abuse? Isn’t it time we heard from them? So while the Bill is to be welcomed enthusiastically, offering a lifeline, literally, to so many women — there are still so many who need to be rescued.

Names of victims have been changed.