Domestic killers with history of coercive or controlling behaviour face tougher jail sentences

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Domestic abusers who kill their partners or ex-partners will face longer in prison

Domestic killers with a history of coercive or controlling behaviour against their victims will be given tougher sentences under new government plans.

As part of the proposals, judges will be asked to consider longer jail terms for a history of abuse and aggression. The use of excessive or gratuitous violence will also be made an aggravating factor in sentencing decisions for murder, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said.

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The changes follow a series of recommendations made by Clare Wade KC in an independent review into domestic homicide sentencing, which was commissioned in 2021. Ms Wade found the current sentencing framework does not adequately reflect that many domestic homicides are preceded by years of abuse, the MoJ said.

Around one in four (26%) homicides in England and Wales are committed by a current or former partner or relative. Of the murder cases reviewed by Ms Wade, more than half (51%) involved controlling or coercive behaviour while excessive violence, or overkill, was identified in 60%, with men being the perpetrator in all but one case.

Domestic abusers who kill their partners or ex-partners will face longer in prison (Photo: Adobe)Domestic abusers who kill their partners or ex-partners will face longer in prison (Photo: Adobe)
Domestic abusers who kill their partners or ex-partners will face longer in prison (Photo: Adobe) | kieferpix - stock.adobe.com

Justice Secretary Dominic Raab said: “This government will do everything we can to protect vulnerable women and keep in prison for longer those who attack or threaten them.

“The changes I am announcing today will mean longer jail sentences for those who kill women in the home by taking greater account of the specific factors involved, whether it is controlling and coercive behaviour or cases involving particular savagery known as ‘overkill’.”

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Ms Wade was the leading defence barrister for Sally Challen, who suffered years of domestic abuse by her husband before she killed him with a hammer in 2010. She was convicted for her husband’s murder but was released in 2019 after the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) accepted her plea of manslaughter by diminished responsibility, making her the first woman to have her murder conviction quashed under coercive control laws.

The government commissioned Ms Wade’s review following the murders of Poppy Devey Waterhouse, 24, and Ellie Gould, 17, who were both stabbed to death in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

Carole Gould and Julie Devey, who co-founded the campaigning organisation Killed Women after the deaths of their daughters, said in a joint statement: “After years of campaigning, we welcome the government’s announcements today, but they must be just the start of the root-and-branch reform that is needed to ensure killers of women face sentences that reflect the cruelty and brutality of their crimes.” The pair called on the government to make sure the changes “are felt in courtrooms”.

Domestic homicide is defined as a death that occurs due to violence, abuse or neglect by a partner, ex-partner, relative or member of the same household. Controlling or coercive behaviour was introduced as a criminal offence in the Serious Crime Act 2015 and can include economic, emotional or psychological abuse and threats alongside physical or sexual violence.

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Patrick Ryan, chief executive of domestic abuse support service Hestia, said: “Far too many people across the UK lose their lives to a current or former partner. As a specialist domestic abuse charity, Hestia welcomes these tougher sentences and we now await a more detailed and resourced plan.

“In particular, we welcome the recognition of other forms of violence including coercive control. Survivors often tell us that they have endured years of abuse before physical violence escalates and it’s right that we take this into account when sentencing.”

A public consultation will be launched to determine whether a higher sentencing starting point of 25 years should be applied in murder cases where there is a history of controlling and coercive abuse. Currently, the 25-year starting point only applies to murders where a knife has been taken to the scene with intent.

In addition, manslaughter sentencing guidelines around "rough sex" are also set to be reviewed so that deaths that occur in these cases are punished with longer jail terms. While the law is clear that there is no such thing as a “rough sex defence”, the review found that the high risk of death should be reflected in sentences potentially several years longer, the MoJ said.

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Conservative MP Laura Farris last year asked ministers to support proposals for a minimum 12-year sentence for sexually motivated manslaughter amid concerns the law does not adequately punish such crimes.

Ms Farris said: “I am delighted by today’s decision which will see perpetrators receive much heftier sentences when they show such blatant disregard for their victims’ lives.

“The last few years have seen some appalling cases where men have received derisory sentences for brutal killings including strangulation. The announcement recognises the gendered nature of these crimes, and the fact they are often part of wider patterns of domestic abuse.

“We won’t solve violence against women overnight but today’s decision shows that these crimes will be treated with the seriousness that they deserve.”

The government will respond in full to the Wade Review in the summer.