Coercive control only became a crime in 2015. It has taken a while for awareness of this offence to build, and for the signs of coercive control to become more recognised and acknowledged.
In recent months, the successful appeal against conviction of Sally Challen has received much publicity. Her murder conviction for the killing her husband was overturned (quashed) on the basis of diminished responsibility. Over the years leading up to the killing she had been the victim of her husband’s coercive and controlling behaviour.
What is coercive control?
The concept of coercive control and behaviour is relatively new in English law. It does not relate to a single incident, but is a purposeful pattern of behaviour that occurs over time in order for one individual to exert power, control or coercion over another.
It is an offence for one person to control the life of another by virtue of isolating them from their family, controlling their finances, looking to control any social activity, or by being repeatedly threatening or intimidating both physically, mentally and emotionally.
Coercive control cases are rising
The reporting of such an offence is on the rise. Wells Burcombe Solicitors are representing more and more individuals in respect of this offence. Such cases require a forensic approach and a highly proactive and active defence team. The police and prosecution will invariably be selective in what information they disclose to the defence. They will focus more on what the complainant says rather than investigate anything the suspect says. That is why it is so important to instruct lawyers who will look to obtain evidence on your behalf to counteract and undermine what is being alleged. Such material very often exists and is in the possession of the police. Thus it is imperative that the police and prosecution are engaged early to ensure that vital evidence is not lost or misplaced.
Diminished responsibility is a long-standing partial defence to murder. It does not provide a complete defence unlike say self-defence, but, if successfully argued, it has the effect of reducing murder to manslaughter, the sentence for which is usually far less than for murder. In cases of manslaughter, the judge has a wide discretion rather than needing to impose a mandatory life sentence as is the case for murder.
The partial defence of Diminished Responsibility requires the accused (it is not for the prosecution to disprove) to show that their state of mind was such that their culpability for the killing does not meet the threshold required for murder. In legal terms the accused must establish that they suffered an abnormality of the mind.
The Sally Challen appeal was, it seems, the first time that coercive and controlling behaviour appears to have contributed to the decision of the court of appeal to quash a murder conviction. Such an issue is not likely to ever afford an accused a complete defence to any charge. However, it can certainly help reduce responsibility as it did in the case of Ms Challen. In some cases, being a victim of controlling and coercive behaviour could very well present powerful mitigation.
Unsafe convictions relating to coercive control
Understandably, the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), together with the legal profession as a whole, are keen to see how the issue of coercive and controlling behaviour is applied in future cases by the courts. More importantly, for the purposes of this article, what impact cases of coercive and controlling behaviour will have upon the safety of individuals convicted of murder within the prison population where an individual has killed their partner in circumstances where the convicted inmate suffered coercive and controlling behaviour.
The number of murder convictions potentially affected by this issue isn’t known. I would invite any inmate who was convicted of murder in circumstances where they could be considered as having been a victim of controlling or coercive behaviour to write to me so that the conviction can be reviewed. I should stress, however, that simply having suffered controlling and coercive behaviour will not, on its own, be sufficient to mount a successful appeal or persuade the criminal cases review commission to refer a conviction back to the Court of Appeal.
In addition to identifying those cases where there is a victim of coercive behaviour, that individual would need to establish that they were at the time of the killing suffering a recognised mental disorder capable of impacting upon the ability of that individual to form specific intent. Following her conviction, Sally Challen was assessed by a psychiatrist and diagnosed as having a new diagnosis of personality disorder and a severe mood disorder at the time of the killing. Coercive control is not on its own a ground for appeal, it must be coupled with a medical diagnosis of a recognised mental disorder.
Could your conviction be reviewed?
It may be that, for some, diminished responsibility has already been argued at trial. Importantly, if the issue of coercive and controlling behaviour was not considered, then there may now be an opportunity for that to be explored.
So, for those convicted of murder who feel they may be affected by the Sally Challen case, the important questions are:
- Did you suffer coercive and controlling behaviour prior to the killing?
- Do you believe that there were concerns over your mental health at the time of the killing?
- Do you feel that the coercive and controlling behaviour caused or significantly contributed to any mental health issue at the time of the killing?
If the answer these questions is yes, you should consider seeking a review of your conviction.
Sally Challen was obviously a female victim of coercive control but undoubtedly, there will also be male victims whose convictions may be unsafe.
The Sally Challen case is in many respects an important one. It ought to have some bearing on how similar criminal trials are dealt with in the courts in the future. It also should enable those currently convicted of murder in similar circumstances to seek a review of their case.
Contact David Wells, an expert in complex crime cases, on 07939 026751, or call Wells Burcombe’s St Albans office on 01727 840900, or in West Drayton on 01895 449288 or, or email us via our contact page.