‘You’re going mad, Sally, you’re making it all up’: Why coercive controllers get away with it

Prolonged and insidious domestic abuse is rampant. And the legal system is ill-equipped to weigh up the burden of coercive control. Why is this? Andy Martin reports

Friday 09 July 2021 21:30
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<p>Sally Challen, flanked by her sons James (left) and David, leaves the Old Bailey after hearing she will not face a retrial over the death of her husband Richard  in 2010</p>

Sally Challen, flanked by her sons James (left) and David, leaves the Old Bailey after hearing she will not face a retrial over the death of her husband Richard in 2010

On the morning of 14 August 2010, in the kitchen of their marital home in Claygate, Surrey, Sally Challen picked up a hammer and hit her husband Richard over the head with it 20 times, until he was dead. It wouldn’t have taken very long. Her defence was that he had been slowly annihilating her, psychologically, for decades. Which is worse?

In June 2011, in Guildford Crown Court, she was found guilty of murder and sent to prison for life. The court was incapable of acknowledging the harm she had suffered. The new law on “controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship”, which became a criminal offence in 2015, meant that her defence team, notably lead counsel Clare Wade QC, supported by David Challen, the son of Sally, were able to downgrade murder to manslaughter and she was released in 2019 on account of time served.

Cue celebrations by the survivors of domestic abuse, who fondly imagine that this so-called “landmark case” meant that the bad old days of coercive control were finally numbered and judges and juries in future would be wise to the myriad machinations of the controllers – sexual, financial, physical, but above all verbal and mental – and would duly put them away. But the fact is not a lot has changed. Coercive control is still rampant – perhaps more than ever during lockdown – and the legal apparatus is ill-equipped to weigh up the burden of long-term abuse in the scales of justice. Why is this?

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