LAW REPORT: Battered woman syndrome relevant to defence

LAW REPORT v 19 December 1995
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The Independent Online
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.