LAW REPORT v 6 June 1997; Battered woman's conviction overturned

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Regina v Hobson; Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) (Lord Justice Rose, Mr Justice Sedley and Mr Justice Keene) 23 May 1997

The 1992 murder conviction of a woman who had admitted killing her abusive partner was quashed, in the light of fresh psychiatric evidence that she might have been suffering from battered women's syndrome which had, since the time of the trial, entered the standard British classification of mental diseases, and was thus capable of founding the defence of diminished responsibility. A re-trial was ordered.

The Court of Appeal allowed Kathleen Hobson's appeal against her conviction of murder on 19 October 1992, but ordered that she be retried. She had stabbed her abusive and alcoholic partner to death during an argument. Her defence was self-defence, although the trial judge had also left the issue of provocation to the jury.

There was evidence from police officers that the appellant had reported the deceased's violence to her on many occasions, and that she had made four formal complaints. The appellant herself had given evidence of the suffering she had endured at the hands of the deceased over about 18 months prior to the killing.

Helena Kennedy QC and Paul Taylor (assigned by the Registrar of Criminal Appeals) for the appellant; Stephen Riordan QC (Crown Prosecution Service) for the Crown.

Lord Justice Rose said that the court had been invited to admit in evidence, under the provisions of section 23 of the Criminal Appeal Act 1968, as amended, the reports of two psychiatrists provided since the trial.

The substance of the submission made on the appellant's behalf was that it was not until 1994 that battered women's syndrome had been included in the standard British classification of mental diseases.

In consequence, at the time of the appellant's trial in 1992, it was not a condition which would readily have been considered by practising British psychiatrists, save the relatively small number who had a particular experience and expertise in relation to that condition. Battered women's syndrome was a variant of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The essence of the case now sought to be made on the behalf of the appellant on the basis of the psychiatric reports was that, at the time of the killing, her history and all the attendant circumstances had given rise to the existence of battered women's syndrome, which was capable of founding diminished responsibility for the killing in accordance with the provisions of section 2 of the Homicide Act 1957.

The Crown had relied upon the evidence of another psychiatrist dated 13 February 1997. It was to be noted that he had given reports to the defence at the time of the trial in relation to the appellant's mental condition which had excluded the possibility of diminished responsbility as a defence.

His present view was that although a diagnosis of battered women's syndrome could be made in the appellant's case, in the light of what she had told him at the time of the trial, her symptoms were not of a degree which would give rise to an abnormality of mind such as could sustain a defence of diminished responsibility.

Counsel for the Crown had resisted the admission by the court of the evidence relied on by the appellant on the basis that although it satisfied the conditions as to capacity for belief, that it might afford a ground for allowing the appeal, and that it would have been admissible at the trial, it fell foul of the provisions of section 23(2)(d) of the Criminal Appeal Act 1968 in that no reasonable explanation for the failure to adduce the evidence at the original trial had been advanced to the court.

He had made that submission on the basis that the reports relied on by the appellant were wholly retrospective, had been obtained long after the trial, and depended upon the unquestioned acceptance of the account of events given to the two doctors by the appellant.

In the light of the submissions made the court had ruled that it would be proper to receive in evidence the current reports from the doctors put forward by both the appellant and the Crown. The court had considered that material, taking the view that it was a matter of significance that battered women's syndrome was not part of the British classification until 1994. Even at the time of the trial, battered women's syndrome was by no means unknown. Indeed, it had been referred to in R v Ahluwalia [1992] 4 All ER 889, which was tried in 1992.

In the light of the court's receipt of that evidence counsel for the Crown had not sought to say that the verdict of the jury in the present case could be regarded as safe. Accordingly the appeal would be allowed and the conviction quashed, but the appellant would be re-tried.

Kate O'Hanlon, Barrister