Murder law reforms to help victims of domestic violence.

// 29 July 2008

Victims of domestic violence who kill their partners after sustained abuse would no longer automatically face murder charges should new proposals from the Ministry of Justice be given the go-ahead. The new laws would apply to both spontaneous and pre-meditated attacks, meaning that women like Emma Humphreys, who was forced to spend ten years in prison after killing an incredibly abusive man, before her sentence was quashed in 1995, would not be treated as cold blooded murderers by the courts. About time too.

The government is also calling for the abolition of the provocation defence for those who kill their partners. As Harriet Harman correctly highlights, this 17th century law, and the misogynist attitudes that underpin it, has allowed men who murder their wives to get off extremely lightly – if not entirely – for far too long:

For centuries the law has allowed men to escape a murder charge in domestic homicide cases by blaming the victim. Ending the provocation defence in cases of “infidelity” is an important law change and will end the culture of excuses.

There is no excuse for domestic violence, let alone taking a life. Whatever happens in a relationship does not justify resorting to violence. So men who kill their wife will have to face a murder charge and will no longer be able to claim ‘it’s her fault, she provoked me.’

Changing the law will end the injustice of women being killed by their husband and then being blamed. It will end the injustice of the perpetrators making excuses saying it’s not my fault – it’s hers.

Sadly – but unsurprisingly – the proposals have caused outcry in certain circles. David Howarth, Lib Dem justice spokesman, claims that:

On domestic violence, ministers are guilty of hype. As the government’s own research shows, there are no recent examples of men being found not guilty of murder simply because of sexual infidelity.

Nice, Dave, really nice. Two women killed every week by partners or ex-partners is just “hype”. In any case, this isn’t about being found not guilty. This is about men like Paul Daulton, who received only two years in jail for manslaughter after killing his wife Tae Hui:

Dalton punched her, she died, then he cut up her body with an electric saw, and stored the pieces in a freezer. He was cleared of murder on the grounds of provocation; the judge said that he had suffered “no little taunting on her [his wife’s] part”. Dalton received just two years in jail for her manslaughter, but got three years for what many might consider the lesser crime of preventing a burial. He is appealing against the sentence.

The proposed laws would ensure that men who kill their wives cannot resort to misogynistic defence strategies in order to avoid the punishment they deserve, and I really fail to see what’s so wrong with that. While I cannot comment on whether the government’s approach to murder law reform is the right one from a legal perspective (being entirely devoid of legal knowledge), it is certainly heartening to see gender inequalities within British law being addressed in this direct way. If the QC quoted in The Guardian is anything to go by, those calling for a more general and radical overhaul of murder law certainly don’t appear to be in any hurry to seek justice for those killed by violent partners:

Overall, the effect of these changes will be to keep people who have killed through loss of temper or self-control in prison for longer than necessary. That is hardly a reform.

Well, no, not if you think losing your temper with a wife who cheats on you somehow diminishes the crime of murder. Fortunately, those in charge of the reforms have other, more progressive ideas.

NB: Don’t even think about reading The Mail’s response to this, entitled “Go soft on killer wives”. Now that’s provocation.

Comments From You

Saranga // Posted 29 July 2008 at 11:22 pm

Ah. You saw the Daily Hate Mail’s headline then. I got very evry angry when I saw that.

ConservaTorygirl // Posted 30 July 2008 at 9:01 am

There are also women who inflict domestic violence on their partners. It’s less frequent than male domestic violence but it does happen, It’s just difficult to address properly when the person who usually brings it up puts it in an entirely misogynistic context. It’s the “Well YOU can shut up because…” argument.

Anyway, the highly gendered nature of this issue may obscure the cases of men who kill violently abusive women, rare as that is.

Sian // Posted 30 July 2008 at 9:25 am

Wait till you see the take the Times has; “An unjust, feminist view of murder”

Qubit // Posted 30 July 2008 at 10:55 am

Is the highly gendered language part of the law or the reporting? I agree that sexual infidelity should not be an excuse for murder. Long term violence and fear is a harder case. When fear is involved it isn’t always easy to leave, especially if you are scared what will happen if you do leave. It seems to make sense that the law is more lenient in this case, especially if it is seen as the only way out. This should apply equally to men and women.

There is a course a severe problem that women tend to be physically weaker than men so people often don’t believe a woman can course fear and pain to a guy. This is something that needs to be dealt with possibly with sensitive publicity. There will always be a difficulty to overcome that a guy confessing to experiencing domestic violence will believe he will be judged harshly by his peers for being weak. I can’t say whether this is the case, however it is something that needs to be tackled. I don’t know a good solution though.

A lot of people tend to moan feminists take crimes against men less seriously than those against women but often it is men who dismiss the crimes. Of the women I have talked to none of them would think it acceptable to hit a guy out of anger but many men don’t see that much wrong with a women doing this to them in a relationship. I am sure a lot of guys do believe in an equal punishment however it is worth noting that those in charge of sentencing are mainly men. I think it is unfair to say this is feminism when the bias is coming from particular judges who are misguided and misguided public perception that most feminists would argue against.

I do think it is unfair to compare frequent violence and fear with infidelity which these articles seem to do. I also find it worrying that in the comments someone claimed the new increased (and transferable) maternity leave was an attack on their rights as a man to work and raise a family. I can’t even see that logic.

Lynsey // Posted 30 July 2008 at 11:16 am

I wrote a little something on the Daily Mail’s headline in my blog.

They are unrelentingly sick.

Lorna // Posted 30 July 2008 at 11:50 am

I don’t think harriet Harman did herself any favours by making her bbc interview so gendered. I understand and believe that domestic violence is regularly(almost always) a gendered crime but I’m sure this law could be used by men as well as women if the same situation did arise. Why not state the law in a gender neutral way, but give examples to show how the world really is(or mostly is)?

It also appears that the provocation law with respect to marriage specifically applies to husbands(Could someone clear this up? I am quite confused). If this is true why did she not highlight it?

Who would claim that cheating was more of a defense than repeated beatings? Well it seems most of HYS, but HYS tends to be populated with people with the most repulsve opinion and the very bored.

Harpymarx // Posted 30 July 2008 at 12:24 pm

Oh don’cha just lurve the Daily Hate, the usual bang ’em up brigade….

Domestic violence generally, and not just where there is a death, still destroys womens’ lives on a vast scale.

In a time of punative rhetoric about law and order and out of control teenagers a form of violence that dwarfs gangsterism gets hardly anyone hot under the collar: indeed it is probably a safe bet that most of the hang’em and flog’em brigade will come over all sympathic to the rights of the indivdual man in the dock when it comes to talking about these proposals….hence Daily Hate’s and The Times headline….

Misogyny alive and kicking.

Josie // Posted 30 July 2008 at 12:48 pm

I am so impressed by Harriet Harman’s courage in introducing long overdue reforms such as this. At the moment, she seems utterly fearless in terms of facing down the Daily Mail-type criticisms and familiar accusations of “man-hating”. I think we should all feel very proud that we have an out-and-proud feminist in such a prominent position within our government and let’s face it, there’s not much else to feel good about government-wise at the moment. And yes, the Daily Mail headline is predictable but no less sickening for that

Leigh // Posted 30 July 2008 at 2:27 pm

I can only applaud this changes and hoe they have an easy progress into law. I am concerned that even here there is a very gendered slant to the discussion of domestic violence. Yes, spousal and similar abuse is terrifyingly more male on female than the other way around but physically abusive wives do exist and this is too often overlooked. In the new laws about defence as provocation it would be conceivable that a husband kill his wife to prevent her from abusing or endangering their child, and only be charged with manslaughter. Not acknowledging those gender configurations, however rarer they are, gives misogynist and quasi-misogynist pressure groups like Fathers for Justice opportunities to criticism these positive reforms and sabotage their enactment.

MGTOW // Posted 30 July 2008 at 3:50 pm

I would like to point out the fact that 38 men were murdered by their partners in the UK during 2006/07, and that 1 in 6 men will fall victim to domestic violence.

Anne Onne // Posted 30 July 2008 at 6:05 pm

I’m glad you covered this.

It’s funny that nobody complained when (again a vastly gendered situation) mostly men were pleading for leniency having killed women in a fit of jealousy. People have no problem avoiding killing their boss or colleagues if they get fired or humiliated. Somehow, it’s understood that you’d get into trouyble if you did soemthing like that, whereas with partners, it’s considered more acceptable. Why? They’re not less human than your colleagues. Somehow, it’s considered acceptable to think you own your partner, that killing them means less than killing anyone else. If the justification that you’re more emotionally involved is to hold any water, shouldn’t the fact you supposedly care more about them mean you should work especially hard on keeping your emotions under control? As a society, we preach that provocation is not an acceptable excuse for a serious crime, and that murder is a grave crime which robs the victim of their rights and life. We teach our children to learn to control their emotions, that people mustn’t let themselves be controlled by rage, and that irrational anger is inexcuseable. Why should the only exception be killing the ones we supposedly love?

I’m not entirely happy with the message this is taken to send, because murder IS murder, and in the end it’s not an easy thing to deal with. That said, I certainly don’t Having said that, victims in very abusive situations are often very short of options. There may, in reality be very little they can do, and the fear they must face every day is unimaginable. Not knowing where to go, or if your abuser will find you, or if they might catch on to what you’re planning and kill you must be torture. All of these people compaining have more empathy with abusers than the abused.

It’s ironic, because the same people complain that if they get attacked they have no rights to defend themselves. Getting attacked with a knife on the street or whilst being burgled is a gender-neutral problem, or if anything affects more men, hence more people believe they deserve the right to defend themselves. But it’s interesting that when it comes to a problem that affects women, effectively isolates them and toys with their emotions as well as their physical health, it’s Too Far and Immoral.

Given the current figures of just how many women are killed by partners or ex-partners, and how many women admit to being raped or abused at some part in their life, we clearly need some way to give these women a chance to stay alive, and not punish them if they do so. This is especially important considering the high rates of women being killed after they leave an abusive partner – for some victims, it’s simply not enough to leave or go into hiding, and if a victim is confronted by their abuser (who is in likelihood perfectly prepared to kill them), the victim needs to be able to defend themselves from likely death.

So many women are being killed by partners, and it was right to end the barbaric way the law used to excuse this. Considering the shocking figures, it’s appaling that for so long men (mostly, though I’m sure women don’t get the same level of forgivness) have been allowed to blame their having killed a partner on jealousy, and on the partner’s cheating. Has nobody thought that this law was in part why we have such high rates of women being killed by partners?

Ergh, I think I’m not going to risk reading those articles, today. I’ve read and heard enough already.

JENNIFER DREW // Posted 30 July 2008 at 6:13 pm

Harriet Harman was correct in presenting a gendered aspect with regards to these new proposals because ‘provocation ‘ is predominantly used by men accused of murdering their female partners. Men charged with murdering their female partners commonly claim the were ‘provoked and lost control because the woman “nagged” (a typical sterotypical belief), or the woman was unfaithful and taunted the man.’ All too often men who have used this pseudo claim have resulted in their being given very light sentences or even acquitted of murder. The small number of women who are driven to murder their male partners cannot use ‘provocation’ as a defence because these women do not suddenly lose control. Rather they are driven to commit murder because of having suffered (yes suffered) years of violent male sexual and/or physical abuse and they believe their lives are in extreme danger if they do not stop the man who is systematically committing acts of violence against them. The law however, has consistently refused to understand why such women are driven to take extreme measures, yet at the same time it believes men who claim they were ‘provoked’ is a justifiable defence. Note the case of Daulton who murdered his wife and then cut up her body. All he received was a 2 year sentence. Is cutting up a woman’s body due to ‘provocation’ or is it in fact an extreme continuum of systematic violent hatred towards her, which resulted in him callously murdering her.

Sexual infidelity was mentioned because many men charged with murdering female partners claim they were ‘provoked’ due to the woman’s sexual infidelity. So, female sexual infidelity supposedly ‘provokes’ a man to commit murder. After all the female partner in the man’s view belongs to him and she had no right to commit such an act. So, the law is gendered and in fact it is still biased against women. Claiming a gender-neutral stance is more appropriate is inaccurate because the law is never, ever gender neutral. The law was originally written by and for men not for women and men. Women’s lives and experiences never featured when the legal framework was written. Instead women and children were viewed as male possessions and male property not separate autonomous human beings.

This is why it is so hard for legal changes to be made, because the assumption is the law is gender neutral and therefore applies equally to women and men. As ‘provocation’ clearly demonstrates it does not. Neither for that matter does rape.

If these proposals are passed by parliament they just might prevent another woman being convicted of murder because she was driven to such action after having had to endure years of male violence. Remember statistics remain the same wherein two women each and every week are murdered by violent male partners, who always, but always claim their female partner’s actions/behaviour ‘provoked’ them to lose control. Strange how these men only lose ‘control’ with the female partner and never, ever outside the home. Actually, such men do not ‘lose control’ rather they act on their rage and anger, so it is a calculated decision not one of ‘losing control.’ Also, in the past the fact a woman who murdered her male partner had suffered systematic sexual and/or physical violence at the hands of her male partner was commonly considered by the legal system to be irrelevant to the case. Men who murder their female partners do not do so in fit of ‘temporary insanity’ instead there is nearly always a history of male terrorism committed against the woman and murdering the woman is the culmination of his violence.

CMK // Posted 30 July 2008 at 7:44 pm

I suspect that anyone who kills a partner that has committed adultery is unlikely to have thought ‘I know, I will kill them and then claim it was provocation…..’ before doing so. There may well be those that don’t care but it is unlikely that the majority of the population were aware of this form of defence.

The interesting point to me is that people were ever automatically prosecuted for murder, I thought we paid the Crown Prosecution Service to make a judgement call on the most appropriate charge. To my mind there is a difference between death caused by a driver that has an accident and a driver that was drunk. Any prosecution should be appropriate to the crime. Part of the decision should include an evaluation of the circumstances, why could this person not have left (poverty, fear, children, retribution etc.), how realistic were these reasons and so on. Not easy and people will get it wrong, if someone has died it merits the attention of society to ensure that doesn’t happen again.

On the subject of domestic abuse I found this article: whilst one survey is just one survey and questions can be loaded some of the statistics are concerning e.g. “Among European students, only English women were more likely to have carried out assaults, with 41% admitting that they had punched or kicked their partners.”

Whilst physical injury may be limited I have always understood that the psychological impact of Domestic Abuse did the most harm.

dan // Posted 30 July 2008 at 9:39 pm

As others have allready mentioned I don’t think Harriet should have used such gendered language when introducing it. It has deeply clouded the issue, and appears to have done almost purpossfully to anger the Daily Mail so she can claim how progresive the government has been.

Clearly these new law changes(and some form of change is merited) will have far reaching and serious consequences beyond the scope of domestic abuse yet I fear now that any attempt to examine its wider effect or to flag up problems with it will just be labled as a typically mysoginistic daily mail view.

David Space // Posted 2 August 2008 at 2:25 am

This means that a woman who discovers her husband shagging her best friend in the kitchen, momentarily loses control, grabs a knife and stabs him, will be in the same legal position as a hit man or someone who kills for fun. It’s clearly ridiculous.

Anna // Posted 2 August 2008 at 2:50 pm

Anyone who stabs someone as a result of them having it off with someone else, whether it be brother, sister, best friend or grandparent, really has no excuse. Yes, what they did was abhorrent – you don’t take a life for it, though.

Chris Morris // Posted 2 August 2008 at 5:52 pm

David: the situation you describe would be manslaughter (heat of the moment, no planning), not murder, and so would still be treated differently to the case of a hit man or serial killer.

I’d hope that the sentence was towards the high end of those allowed for manslaughter, though, since it’s still as Anna said an inexcusable thing to do.

Councillor David Pearson // Posted 5 March 2009 at 10:50 am


An interesting debate.

Murder is murder and nobody can condone that.

But many of the women who murdered violent partners suffer years of abuse and then they just snap.

So in my opinion it is not really murder but manslaughter.

These women need more support before it gets to that stage.

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