I’m starting to get the uncomfortable feeling that the Government is increasingly making up the law as it goes along, without any thought for establishing a coherent whole.
The latest example is, according to the BBC, a proposal England and Wales that will allow people who kill after suffering domestic abuse to escape a murder conviction.
I am not unsympathetic towards people – chiefly women – who suffer domestic abuse, and of course this is a very emotive subject. But that’s more reason why the law should not react emotionally.
The BBC also reports that defendants who successfully claim they were “seriously wronged” by the victim could now be convicted of manslaughter.
I shudder to think what the legal definition of “seriously wronged” might be. It sounds like barrister-speak for “dissed”. But seriously, is this not a concession towards taking the law into one’s own hands? If there is reforming to be done, surely a reform that more reasonably might be made is making the justice system more accessible to people who have been “wronged” to seek justice in an ordered and measured way?
In today’s society, there are a great many more opportunities for women in abusive relationships to simply leave. In the past, where it was difficult for women to work, or to support children as a single parent, or to find counselling, and support, or for the police to take allegations seriously, this law might have had a place.
But what signal is this law sending? Is it not in fact saying to an abused spouse: “Do not take advantage of other options like legal redress and social and economic support. Instead hold it out as long as possible – in fact until you snap and commit murder.”
I find it hard to accept that premeditated murder – for that is what we’re talking about since self defence has always been available as a legal defence – can be condoned when the option to remove oneself from the situation is always available.
More worrying is that “seriously wronged” clause which doesn’t necessarily mean only in cases of domestic abuse. Would this include, for example, someone who cheats one out of a lot of money, perhaps causing one to lose one’s home or business? Perhaps, because the law doesn’t stipulate that the “wronging” has to be violent. It can be “words and conduct”.
It also seems that this law change is reactive and far too specific. A much wider latitude to mitigate (what is currently) a mandatory life sentence for murder seems more sensible. As Geoffrey Robertson QC argued:
“Any mandatory sentence is unjust because it doesn’t distinguish between the terrorist and the gangland executioner and the mercy killer at the other end of the scale, who maybe doesn’t deserve to go to prison at all, but has to be sentenced to life imprisonment, and the domestic killings.”
Rather than softening the law against those who kill, in many cases it might strengthen it. It might introduce the idea of “second degree murder” into British law. Any lawyers reading might be able to correct me, but as far as I’m aware, sometimes charges which really should be murder are reduced to manslaughter because they’re easier to prove and don’t rely on “intent”. So for example so-called “happy-slappers” who kill a victim might get away with “murder”.
Framing the law in terms of degrees of murder would lend these reforms more coherence, but according to The Times, that is not on the cards:
Ministers have ruled out plans to introduce US-style categories of murder, saying that there was no consensus to proceed or to tamper with the mandatory life sentence for murder.
So on the surface of it, it seems instead we’ll land up with a confusing fudge.
Nevertheless, returning to the main issue the media seems fixated on – spousal abuse. My final concern is that this cements the status of an abused spouse as the eternal victim. I don’t think this is a good idea. People should not be given additional incentive to stay in an abusive relationship – and in a perverse way, the reduction of a murder charge is just that. People should be encouraged to leave, to get out.
As a society, we should be providing every opportunity to escape an abusive relationship – before you commit murder.