LAW REPORT: Battered woman syndrome relevant to defence

LAW REPORT v 19 December 1995

Regina v Thornton; Court of Appeal (Lord Taylor of Gosforth, Lord Chief Justice, Mr Justice Hidden and Mrs Justice Ebsworth); 13 December 1995

Medical evidence that a defendant suffered from "battered woman syndrome" which affected the defendant's personality was relevant to the jury's consideration of whether the defendant was provoked and suffered a sudden and temporary loss of self-control when she killed the deceased.

The Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) allowed an appeal by Sara Elizabeth Thornton, quashed her conviction of murder and ordered a retrial.

The appellant, who suffered from a personality disorder, was subjected to violence and abuse by her alcoholic husband. She killed her husband by stabbing him with a kitchen knife. At her trial for murder, the appellant did not contend she was provoked by her husband but relied on the defence of diminished responsibility on the basis that her abnormality of mind impaired her mental responsibility. The trial judge left the issue of provocation to the jury, directing them the husband's conduct must have caused in the appellant "a sudden and temporary loss of self-control" and would have caused a reasonable person to lose her self-control. The appellant was convicted and her appeal in 1991 dismissed. The Home Secretary referred the case to the Court of Appeal, where further medical evidence raised the appellant's personality disorder and the element of "battered woman syndrome" as further characteristics relevant to the jury's consideration of provocation.

Michael Mansfield QC and Edward Fitzgerald QC (B.M. Birnberg & Co) for the appellant; Brian Escott Cox QC (CPS) for the Crown.

Lord Taylor CJ, giving the court's judgment, said that in R v Ahluwalia 96 Cr App R the Court of Appeal rejected the argument that the concept of provocation should accommodate the case of a woman, subjected over a period of abuse, who killed her abuser because of a "slow burn" reaction to the cumulative maltreatment rather than because of a sudden and temporary loss of self-control. That principle was reaffirmed. A defendant, even if suffering from "battered woman syndrome", could not succeed in relying on provocation unless the jury considered she suffered or might have suffered a sudden and temporary loss of self-control at the time of the killing.

That was not to say that a battered woman syndrome had no relevance to the defence of provocation. It might form an important background to whatever triggered the actus reus. A jury might more readily find there was sudden loss of control triggered by even a minor incident if the defendant had endured abuse over a period, on the "last straw" basis. The syndrome might have affected the defendant's personality so as to constitute a significant characteristic relevant to the jury's consideration of provocation.

It was submitted that the further medical evidence of the appellant's personality disorder and the effect of the deceased's abuse over a period on her mental make-up were characteristics which bore on her reaction to the stress of events at the time of the killing and that the jury would have had to consider whether a reasonable woman with those characteristics might have lost control as the appellant did.

At the trial, the absence of evidence to suggest that the appellant's personality disorder was relevant to provocation might have been due to the state at that time of medical knowledge which had since then progressed considerably.

Recent decisions made clear that mental and physical characteristics of a defendant should be attributed by the jury to the notional reasonable person. A judge should give the jury directions as to what, on the evidence, was capable of amounting to a relevant characteristic. If the trial judge had had the assistance of the recent decisions and of the further evidence, he would have given the jury directions as to the two characteristics now relied on. Doubt was cast on the jury's verdict. The court could not be sure that the verdict was safe and satisfactory.

However the question whether the appellant did lose or might have lost her self-control at the time of the killing was essentially a matter for a jury to decide. The public interest required that issue to be determined. A fresh jury would be able fairly to try the case solely on the evidence they heard. The conviction was quashed and a retrial ordered.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Manager - Kent - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager / Training Manager (L&D /...

HR Manager - Edgware, London - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - Edgware, Lon...

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Talent Manager / HR Manager - central London - £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Talent / Learning & Development Mana...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam