Late last month, a few of our law students, myself included, visited the Royal Courts of Justice to watch the appeal of Sally Challen.
Mrs Challen is a victim of domestic abuse who killed her husband and was sentenced to eighteen years for murder. The originally submitted evidence was clearly lacking in detail and understanding of Mrs Challen’s relationship with the deceased. She was portrayed as a jealous and spiteful woman, without showing her compassion for the psychologically strenuous and manipulative relationship she had endured.
The sceptical bystander might disregard any sympathy for the defendant; why didn’t she just leave him if he was so bad instead of killing him? But this just further proves the continued gap in understanding mental health and in particular domestically abused women. Clearly this isn’t just a problem for the general public – the law struggles with it too, although it is days like the 27th and 28th February which give us hope for the future.
Section 76 of the Serious Crimes Act 2015 created a new criminal offence – coercive control. It recognises psychological abuse which, it is argued, had not been adequately covered by the law previously. Organisations such as Justice for Women are a great resource in seeing how often the law had failed women when it comes to cases involving killing a partner as a result of domestic abuse.
In light of new evidence submitted, we now know that Sally struggled with depression, and was for years a victim of domestic abuse. The abuse was psychological in nature, including controlling behaviour from her husband such as monitoring how much money she can spend, who she can be friends with, what she should wear, etc.
It has become very clear from the extensive reliance on medical experts in the field which were used at the appeal that the legal team in the original trial almost dismissed this sort of abuse altogether. From the questions posed by both counsel as well as the judges we can see that it is a complex area of mental health and one which needs careful consideration before deciding whether murder or manslaughter is the more appropriate sentence in a particular case.
This is the first murder case to consider the applicability and appropriateness of coercive control to provide a degree of justification for the defendant’s actions. The Court of Appeal has quashed the decision and has ordered a re-trial. The date is to be confirmed.