When the news broke that Sally Challen had won a landmark appeal that saw her murder conviction quashed and a retrial secured, reports centred largely around the idea that this would be good news for women serving time or standing trial for murdering abusive husbands.
Challen, 65, confessed to killing her husband, 61, in 2010 and was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2011. On Thursday, the Court of Appeal ordered a retrial on the grounds that new psychiatric evidence suggested she had been suffering from two mental disorders at the time of the killing, making her conviction unsafe. At the heart of this evidence were allegations that Challen had withstood decades of her husband’s “coercive and controlling behaviour”. They had been together since she was 15 and he was 22.
Challen’s sons have only ever supported their mother. David, 31, described the ruling when speaking to press outside the Court of Appeal as an “amazing moment”. The abuse his mother had suffered, he said, “was never recognised properly and her mental conditions were not taken into account”.
This is the first time a court has recognised domestic abuse that didn’t involve persistent physical attack – coercive control was recognised as an offence under the Serious Crime Act 2015. But a woman nevertheless endured decades of alleged abuse and isolation and a murder took place. Hardly a cause for celebration.
It’s also difficult to view Challen’s news as emblematic of wider progress for women when coercive control and other forms of domestic abuse are allowed to go on day after day, while the government continues to fail women just like her, refusing to place their full focus on prevention and support.
Yet the Court of Appeal’s ruling is clearly encouraging news for women serving sentences for domestic murder in similar circumstances. It could even prove to be as groundbreaking as the cases of Kiranjit Ahluwalia in 1992 and Sara Thornton in 1996, where the justice system recognised what is known (hideously) as “battered woman syndrome”. This is a form of PTSD suffered by abuse victims that finally enabled juries to consider a reduced charge of manslaughter when the women eventually snapped.
It would be revolutionary if Challen’s case led to greater understanding of the complexities of domestic abuse. It would be progress if clichés of bruised, hospital-frequenting women as the only victims worthy of assistance became as outdated as the rapist-in-dark-alley trope. Coercive control is being recognised as a varied and harrowing experience that demands real action, and that should be the focus here.
CEO of domestic abuse charity Refuge, Sandra Horley, said of Challen’s case: “One in four women in the UK from all walks of life will experience domestic abuse. You don’t have to hit a woman to control her. Abuse is often subtle, insidious and incremental. In 2017-18, eight out of 10 of the women supported by Refuge had suffered years of psychological abuse.”
The truth is that the good was preceded by the bad. The day before Challen’s successful appeal was announced, a report published by the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime revealed that domestic violence had risen by 63 per cent in London over the last seven years. If this week is considered as progress, the bar has been set pathetically low. Instead of waiting for victims to kill their abusers it’s quite clear to anyone with a modicum of sense that the focus should be on ensuring victims are provided with all necessary support to help them escape and rebuild their lives. We should educate children from a young age so that these crimes don’t go on behind closed doors as regularly as hospital dramas are on the box.
The opposite, in fact, has been happening. Funding for women’s services fell by 50 per cent in 2017. It has been two years since financial abuse has been recognised as an offence and yet some banks still ask victims of domestic violence to go with their abusers to close joint bank accounts. Lisa Cameron MP raised this in parliament earlier this year. Financial abuse can involve perpetrators forcing women to transfer their salaries into different bank accounts, closely monitoring women’s spending and draining joint accounts. The result is that women in controlling and abusive relationships can’t escape.
Battered woman syndrome enabled those who had been physically abused over a long period of time to claim a defence of provocation. The syndrome finally recognised that cumulative abuse by a perpetrator could build up in a slow burn effect that would eventually cause the victim to snap.
Prior to this recognition, women were not able to rely on the defence of provocation unless the provocative act had immediately preceded the killing. Several cases had seen abused women wait for a safe opportunity to rid themselves of their tormenter, striking while he slept. Often, the desperate abuse victim would be convicted of murder.
Grimly, men were more successful with the defence of provocation when the case centred around one isolated provocative act. If a husband murdered his wife in a jealous rage, for example, he might get a lesser charge of manslaughter. Women’s groups were quick to criticise the potential deadly pitfall of the provocation defence: that it could be adopted to acquit abusive men of murder. Of course, the term “battered woman” is utterly problematic. Beyond the passivity it lends to victims, it feeds into the idea that abuse needs to be physical in order for it to be real.
Challen’s case means prolonged emotional abuse will finally be aired as a defence in court. She alleges being subjected to a marriage of domination and jealousy. She, and many witnesses, claim her husband routinely insulted her appearance, chipped away at her self-esteem and exhibited terrifying jealous outbursts including once punishing her with rape after she kissed a friend goodbye. He banned the family from using the phone or the television when he was away, frequented brothels, engaged in numerous affairs and then gaslighted Challen when she confronted him, witnesses claim.
Whatever the outcome of the retrial, this historic ruling finally shines a light on systematic control, a type of abuse long overlooked. But there are thousands of women just like Challen who, at this very moment, are suffering the same horrors. They may escape, they may survive, they may be killed – or even kill. How long must we wait until we decide to protect them, too?
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