THE BLOG

Vicky Pryce - Is Marital Coercion Outdated?

13/03/2013 12:58 GMT | Updated 12/05/2013 10:12 BST

On Thursday of last week, Pryce was unanimously found guilty of perverting the course of justice. It had been alleged that Pryce knowingly took penalty points on her licence in place of her husband, Chris Huhne, who had been speeding.

Whilst the trial might appear to have been fairly straightforward, it has raised some interesting uncertainties about the suitability and sustainability of the jury trial. This was highlighted by the judge in the first of the two trials after the jury posed questions including, "Can a juror come to a verdict based on a reason that was not presented in court and has no facts or evidence to support it either from the prosecution or defence?" prompting Mr Justice Sweeney to observe that, "This is not, with respect, a question about this case at all." These questions raised the spectre that the jury appeared to have fundamentally misunderstood their role, something the judge said "after well over 30 years of criminal trial, I have never come across this at this stage, never".

So, is trial by jury letting us down? In a recent statement the Ministry of Justice said "Trial by jury has served us well for hundreds of years and delivers justice across the country every day". This is supported by research, such as the MoJ's report 'Are Juries Fair?', which concluded that "juries overall are efficient and effective". However, what is missing from all the questions surrounding these issues is what do they say about the role of the Barristers (both prosecuting and defending) and the judge, who all have a responsibility to ensure that the jury understand in a fundamental manner what their role is and what is expected of them. Perhaps, in addition to studying the effectiveness of the jury itself, we should also be looking at improvements to ensure that jury members understand their role before the trial begins.

And then there was the question of the unusual defence of marital coercion, relied on by Pryce, but which has featured in the law reports merely six times in the past 75 years. This defence is based on the idea that a wife is not responsible for a crime if pressured to commit it by her husband, and it is more favourable to defendants than the common defence of duress. Coercion has been defined as an external force, either physical or moral, which compels the defendant to act in a way that they otherwise would not. The defence was last employed by one Anne Darwin who was sentenced to six and a half years imprisonment for a fraud involving the receipt of £250,000 on a life insurance policy held by her husband when the couple agreed to fake his death in a canoeing accident.

However, in this modern age there are legitimate questions raised as to whether martial coercion should remain on the statute books - a defence based on the premise of a woman's lack of moral strength, is surely outdated. Or is it? We seem to be seeing more and more cases of alleged coercion of women in circumstances where they are forced to participate in laundering the proceeds of a husband's fraudulent or corrupt activity or, more recently, insider dealing cases.

In two recent FSA investigations Thomas Ammann and Christian Littlewood in separate circumstances passed information to a wife or lover(s), which was then used to buy shares in the case of Ammann's lovers, and to relay information to someone else to trade in the case of Littlewood. In both instances, the judge said that without the lover's or husband's involvement the women would not have done what they did. In the light of this, perhaps a defence based on relationship or marital coercion is not so outdated after all.