Real Justice?

// 17 July 2009

In this guest post, Clare Laxton considers the Coroners and Justice Bill’s impact on women who kill their partners after years of abuse. Clare is feminist campaigner, living in London and working for a sexual health charity

The Coroners and Justice Bill is currently going through the House of Lords. Clauses 44, 45 and 46 of this Bill passed through the Lords recently. You may not have heard about them as they are just three of 166 clause in the bill. Other clauses and amendments such as the one to not prosecute families who take their loved ones to the Dignitas clinic have been much publicised.

But the bill will also hopefully change the lives of women who kill their partners after years and years of abuse, and bring men who kill their partners to justice as well.

Clause 44 looks at loss of control as a partial defence to murder. The important part of this clause for me, is the fact that a person cannot be convicted of murder if their loss of self control has a qualifying trigger.

Clause 45 deals with that ‘qualifying trigger’, stipulating that fear of serious violence from the victim is a qualifying trigger for loss of self control and subsequent murder/assault. This means that women who kill their partners after prolonged abuse and violence fear of violence from their partner will have this counted as reason for their actions.

Clause 46 abolishes the defence of ‘provocation’ that is often used by men in cases when the prolonged abuse and violence that they have brought on their partner has finally ended in their death. This defence often means that while women serve life sentences for the murder of their violent partners, men often get away with suspended sentences of short sentences because they claim that they were ‘provoked’ by their partner.

The implementation of these clauses could mean that women no longer serve these long sentences for the murder of their violent partners, but there is a danger that when violent partners kill women they could also claim that there was a ‘qualifying trigger’.

It is no surprise that, although the bill was brought to the Commons in January, these clauses have received pretty much no publicity at all, although Julie Bindel did mention them in The Guardian.

When implemented, these clauses do have the power to change the way that women who have fought against or killed their violent and abusive partners are treated by the Judicial system – hopefully for the better. It also means that men will not longer be able to employ the simple ‘provocation’ defence when they kill their partners after prolonged violence and abuse.

Justice for Women is a feminist organisation set up in the early 90’s that supports women that have fought back against or killed their violent partners.

Comments From You

Barnaby Dawson // Posted 18 July 2009 at 10:34 am

I suspect that like previous changes to the law effecting domestic violence that this change will not have a clear effect on women and an equally clear and different effect on men.

That doesn’t mean that the change to the law is bad though. It just reminds us that domestic violence is not 100% predicted by gender.

Incidentaly I was just reading this BCS report which is unusually well conducted and detailed study into DV:

Jennifer Drew // Posted 18 July 2009 at 11:26 am

A very succinct analysis of how and why the law as it stands continues to excuse and justify male violence against women whereas women who kill their violent male partners are commonly convicted of murder.

But, even if these two clauses are passed by Parliament this will still enable violent men to use the excuse ‘I lost control which was the qualifying trigger.’ A more detailed and specific definition of what encompasses ‘I lost control’ should be incorporated into these clauses because violent men will use any means in order to justify their violence against women.

It is not ‘loss of control’ but rather women who murder violent male partners/ex-male partners do so because they have commonly exhausted every means afforded them within the to safeguard their lives. Women who murder violent male partners/ex-partners do not decide one day to murder him – all too often it is self-defence because these women rightly perceive the immediate situation they are experiencing is one wherein if they do not protect themselves the man is about to murder them.

However, given the legal system was set up by and for men not women I do wonder if these amendments (if passed) will provide justice for women charged with murdering violent male partners/ex-partners. The legal system was devised by men in order to protect men from the abuses and violence of other men meaning that women’s lives and experiences were and are still to a great extent irrelevant in law. Instead we continue to have the actions of women defined and viewed by male justices and court officials through a ‘masculine lens.’

I know about these latest proposed amendments and it has taken years of campaigning to reach this stage because of immense opposition from the legal system and society as a whole. Women continue to be held more accountable when violence is committed against their violent male partners/ex-partners than when the reverse occurs. Male terrorism within the private sphere is still commonly deemed to be a ‘private matter’ and therefore no ‘crime’ has occurred or else it is minimalised and/or excused.

Ann Jones book ‘Next Time She’ll Be Dead’ provides a detailed analysis and discussion of how and why women who murder violent male partners/ex-male partners continue to be convicted and held more accountable than men who commit violence against women.

The law is very difficult to change because for centuries it has been viewed and continues to be viewed as non-gendered, objective and rational rather than the reality the legal system was set up by men for men not women and their life experiences. This is why I believe the phrase ‘loss of control’ is still used to define deliberate acts of male violence against women and why this phrase does not define precisely how and why a small number of women who murder their violent male partners/ex-male partners.

Women who murder their violent male partners/ex-male partners do not commonly believe the man was/is their private property but most men who commit violence against female partners/ex-female partners adhere to the myth women are men’s private property and not fullly human in their own right. The law too until the middle of the 19th century enforced this view because marriage was seen as one wherein the woman becomes the property of the man and she was defined as being ‘covered by the husband’ meaning once a woman was married she ceased to exist as individual under the law since marriage supposedly means a woman is then under the complete control of the man. Justification for this misogynistic application was that men not women were expected to ensure their households were kept in order and did not commit criminal acts or went against societal expectations of appropriate behaviour.

Claims that women commit violence in equal numbers compared to men are diversionary tactics designed to once again put the focus on women’s actions and behaviours whilst simultaneously invisibilising and hiding male accountability. Empirical eividence shows it is overwhelmingly men who are the ones committing violence against women not the reverse.

Shea // Posted 18 July 2009 at 12:41 pm

This is very welcome, although I think it is a little misleading. My understanding was that the nature of the crime was at fault. Let me explain.

“Provocation” was argued where a man caught his wife in flagrante, and could claim to lose his self control in that minute. The problem* with women who had been abused over a number of years was that they killed with weapons (which makes sense given the strength and size of their assailant) and not during an episode of violence, i.e when their partner was asleep, making it look on both counts a premeditated act and therefore more deserving of a severe punishment.

(* the problem was the long term violence and abuse of the women in question)

Does Clause 45 remedy this by allowing for a time lapse between an act of violence against the woman and her act, ultimately of self defence? Otherwise how is it remedying? Won’t the qualifying trigger be employed by men in very much the same way that provocation was?

I am nonetheless glad to see provocation abolished as a defence. It has been used in the most cold blooded cases to excuse horrific acts.

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