Overhaul of murder laws to protect victims of domestic violence

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The Independent Online

Women who kill abusive partners could escape conviction for murder if they can prove they lived in "fear of serious violence" under an overhaul of the homicide laws announced today.

A further defence against murder charges which allows people to argue they were driven to kill by "words and conduct" that left them "seriously wronged" will also be made available to defendants.

Men and women who endure a "slow burn" of domestic violence over a period of time will in future be able to cite their persecution in their defence, overturning current law which requires them to have acted on the spur of the moment to avoid being convicted of murder. The lesser charge of manslaughter carries much shorter sentences.

The Ministry of Justice said the law would be changed to make it clear that someone who discovers their partner is having an affair would not be entitled to argue they had been "seriously wronged", thus sweeping away the defence that a killing was a "crime of passion".

It argues that current laws have made it too easy for men to kill their wives and claim they were provoked by the victim's infidelity, but at the same time restricted the use of partial defences by women with violent partners.

The words and conduct defence could apply, for example, when a rape victim kills his or her attacker after being taunted about what happened or when a parent kills a man after catching him trying to rape his or her daughter.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal, the Attorney General, said: "Murder law has not changed since 1957 – the proposed thorough overhaul will bring it right up to date."

Maria Eagle, the Justice minister, also argued that judges and juries had been trying to "stretch" the existing laws on homicide to fit the modern world and added: "With these changes, the law will be clearer."

She said the proposals for the "slow burn" defence, where a killer takes a life after being subjected to delayed or gradual pressure, would still have a high threshold.

"This is a substantial change. But we would not want to introduce anything that would allow cold, calculating killers to get away with it," she said.

Ministers have decided not to take forward proposals for a US-style scale of first and second degree murder, which was proposed by the Law Commission in 2006.

Ms Eagle denied this proposal had been "kicked into the long grass" but confirmed ministers would concentrate on implementing the changes announced today.

Vera Baird, the Solicitor General, said: "Exceptionally, someone who loses control and kills from a justifiable sense of being seriously wronged by the victim's conduct will ... have a partial defence.

"However, unlike the current defence of provocation, this can't be used when ordinary domestic conflicts cause friction and emphatically will not be available as a reaction to sexual infidelity."

A previous recommendation for a "developmental immaturity" defence has been dropped. It would have seen children who kill being convicted of lower charges if their lawyers proved they were young for their age.

The new partial defences

*Killing in response to a fear of serious violence

*Killing in response to words and conduct which caused the defendant to have a justifiable sense of being seriously wronged (to apply only in exceptional circumstances)

*Other reforms in the consultation paper include a change to the partial defence of diminished responsibility. It will be abolished and replaced with a defence based on "recognised medical conditions"