At least 112 women have been killed at the hands of men in the year since the first coronavirus lockdown began, latest figures reveal.
But beyond the shocking numbers, campaigners are now worried that Covid-19 will also be used as an “excuse” to justify abusive behaviour and secure lighter sentences by the time these cases come to trial.
They are also concerned at signs of a “culture of misogyny” in the criminal justice system, meaning men who have killed women receive more lenient sentences than women who have killed following situations such as prolonged domestic abuse.
“Barristers are big copycats and they suddenly all start claiming something as a defence when they see others using it,” Karen Ingala Smith, the founder of the Counting Dead Women project told HuffPost UK.
“My fear is that more men are going to use coronavirus as an excuse for killing women in the cases that will be coming to trial in the weeks and months ahead to either turn murder into manslaughter or to have their sentence reduced.”
Smith, who began the Counting Dead Women project in January 2012 as a reaction to the murder of a young woman in East London, watches out for media reports of women killed by men and records them. “I record their names so these women are never merely statistics,” she said.
Since the first UK coronavirus lockdown began on March 23, 2020 – the date from which Boris Johnson told people they “must stay at home”, Smith’s careful recording of UK women killed by men or where a man is the principal suspect reveals that in the 12 months since lockdown began, at least 112 women have been killed. They include 81 deaths between March 23 and the end of 2020, and 31 so far in 2021.
But she believes the true figure will be even higher. Smith submits Freedom of Information (FOI) requests for all women killed by men for each year, and every year they reveal additional cases.
As she has not yet had the FOI figures on all cases where women were killed by men during 2020, Smith knows the actual figure will depressingly be higher.
When lockdown first began, Smith says there was a rise in the number of women being killed by men – with 18 suspected domestic abuse killings of women at the hands of men in the first 21 days.
Since then, Smith says the number of killings has tailed off to what she hesitantly calls ‘normal levels’, and says that women being killed by men should never be viewed as “normal”.
“We should never see men’s violence against women as normal – whether that is violence against women who are still alive or violence which results in their death.” she said.
“It should never be normal and part of the problem with society is that it has been normalised that some men kill women. As long as this is believed and figures are viewed as ‘normal’, we cannot do everything we possibly can to stop these deaths from happening.”
“We should never see men’s violence against women as normal – whether that is violence against women who are still alive or violence which results in their death.””
The criminal justice system is failing women, believes Smith, who points out that while the number of rape cases reported to police has increased, there has been a reduction in rape prosecutions.
Crown Prosecution figures reveal that over the past five years, cases reported to police and initially recorded as rape have risen sharply. But the proportion making it to court in that time has more than halved.
In the year ending in March 2020, 58,856 cases of rape were recorded by police forces in England and Wales. However, only 2,102 of them led to prosecutions compared with 3,043 in the previous 12 months.
“We know that the criminal justice system is failing women. But at the same time, it is all we have got and we have got to hold these men to account, so I would urge women to try to use the law.” said Smith.
“Those of us with influence need to demand that the way the law is failing women needs to be looked at and demand change.
“It should not take a pandemic or the horrific killing of Sarah Everard to make people feel motivated to call for change.”
Smith added that the coronavirus pandemic has led to worse than normal delays for cases to reach court. This is extremely distressing for women reporting rape or violence and families who have lost women killed by a man.
“Closure never happens for these families,” says Smith. “They are never going to get back the woman they loved.
“But at least there is a partial closure if they know the man responsible has been held to justice and will be behind bars for a long time.
“But while they have it hanging over them, they are left in limbo.”
The Femicide Census, which is a unique source of comprehensive information about women who have been killed in the UK and the men who kill them, has found that on average, a woman is killed by a man every three days.
The latest 10 year report shows that 1,425 women were killed by men in the UK from 2009 to 2018.
Fears of a deluge of men who have killed citing coronavirus as a defence have been sparked following the sentence given to Anthony Williams, who strangled his wife Ruth Williams days into the first coronavirus lockdown.
Williams, 70, was found not guilty of murder after admitting manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility.
The judge Paul Thomas described the case as tragic “on several levels” but said in his view, Williams’ mental state was “severely affected at the time.”
Williams told police he “literally choked the living daylights” out of his wife Ruth after he “snapped” following a period of feeling anxious and depressed.
He was cleared of murder following the trial in which a psychologist argued his anxiety was “heightened” because of lockdown which impaired his ability to exercise self control.
Williams was sentenced to jail for five years and campaigners were shocked at the leniency of the sentence, given that the maximum possible sentence for manslaughter can run to potential life imprisonment.
The five-year-sentence has been referred to the Court of Appeal by the Attorney General.
Parallels have been drawn between Williams’ case and that of Sally Challen who killed her husband after years of coercive control and abuse.
She was originally convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 22 years.
This verdict was quashed on appeal and Challen’s conviction overturned. In June 2019, prosecutors accepted Sally’s plea to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility and she was sentenced to 14 years. Having served two thirds of that sentence (nine years and four months), she walked free.
Kate Ellis, a solicitor for the Centre for Women’s Justice, a charity which holds the state to account for violence against women and girls, says that the sentence given to Anthony Williams contrasts shockingly with sentences women have received for killing abusive partners.
“I think a lot of misogyny and stereotypes play into the type of sentences women get,” she told HuffPost UK.
“There is a sense that it is particularly unnatural and monstrous when a woman kills so when women do kill their partners, it sends shockwaves rippling.”
Ellis says that in many cases where women have killed abusive partners, they will have used a weapon – in Sally Challen’s case, it was a hammer. She says this is not surprising given that they might reach for a weapon if they are frightened and considering the greater physical strength of men.
“There is a sense that it is particularly unnatural and monstrous when a woman kills so when women do kill their partners, it sends shockwaves rippling.””
But she says that the use of a weapon is used against women as a factor in the sentences they receive.
Ellis told HuffPost UK she is hesitant to comment or dismiss the mental health impact coronavirus has on people – both men and women.
But she says she doesn’t feel this absolves people of killing someone.
“I do not think the impact of the lockdown drives people to kill,” she said. “In Anthony Williams’ case, this happened in a very early stage of lockdown. But he got an astonishingly low sentence by arguing the impact coronavirus had on his mental health.
“Too often, we have seen excuses cited in history for why men killed women such as the ‘nagging’ and ‘shagging’ defences. There is a common stereotype that men may ‘see red’ and kill in a red mist. I think these ideas are harmful, unhelpful and inaccurate.
“I feel it is very concerning that judges seem very willing to accept the impact of coronavirus as a mitigating factor but don’t show the same understanding when it comes to women who kill after years of abuse when their mental health has deteriorated over a prolonged period of time.”
The UN has described the issue of women around the world trapped at home with potential abusers as a “shadow pandemic” of domestic violence.
The Centre for Women’s Justice has published a report: Women Who Kill, which explores the response of the criminal justice system to women who kill abusive men. The research study also examines the extent to which the law and the way it is applied prevents women accessing justice.
“"It is very concerning that judges seem very willing to accept the impact of coronavirus as a mitigating factor but don’t show the same understanding when it comes to women who kill after years of abuse."”
In a joint letter sent to the Home Secretary, Lord Chancellor and Attorney General, the commissioners highlighted their concerns that some sentences received by men who kill their female partners or ex-partners do not reflect the seriousness of domestic abuse or that these homicides often follow a period of prolonged abuse.
They stated that domestic abuse is a hidden crime which the police “poorly understand” and that “grounds of diminished responsibility, often claimed by defendants in domestic abuse cases, can allow perpetrators to mask the realities of these offences.”
“We are concerned Mr Williams’ case might set a dangerous precedent and not only in the failure to take on the issue of potential abuse,” they wrote.
“This was the first trial for a domestic homicide that happened during the Covid-19 pandemic, when as ministers are well aware, there appears to have been a surge both in the quantity and in some cases the gravity of domestic abuse.
“Mr Williams’ defence was that he was suffering from a mental health episode due to the stress of lockdown.
“That defence was successful despite the homicide occurring just a few days into the first national lockdown.
“We do not want this case to set a trend for defendants to use the stresses of lockdown as a defence for killing and this resulting in more lenient sentences.
“We have always been clear that poor mental health or stress does not cause domestic abuse. Perpetrators choose to abuse.”
“We do not want this case to set a trend for defendants to use the stresses of lockdown as a defence for killing and this resulting in more lenient sentences."”
The commissioners stated in their letter that Anthony Williams was sentenced to five years for manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility “for no apparent reason except that his behaviour was unexpected, that his responsibility was very low.”
The two commissioners said this was of huge concern in relation to the sentences received by women who kill their partners in self defence or after a long period of abuse – citing Sally Challen’s case as a key example and how she was eventually given a sentence of nine years and four months for manslaughter on grounds of diminished responsibility.
“It is difficult to understand the discrepancy between this sentence and the sentence given for the killing of Ruth Williams,” they wrote.
They also pointed out that women are more likely to use a weapon to defend themselves against an abusive partner, but this attracts a longer sentence than violence without a weapon.
The commissioners are calling for greater recognition of the devastation caused by domestic homicide and for a programme of work to address deficiencies across the criminal justice system and statutory services.
They also want every domestic homicide to be subject to an independent review, known as a domestic homicide review (DHR).
“Stress and poor mental health do not cause domestic abuse. Perpetrators choose to abuse.”
Nicole Jacobs, Domestic Abuse Commissioner, told HuffPost UK that she is worried that more perpetrators will use the coronavirus lockdowns to justify their actions.
“I expect that we will see more domestic homicides coming through the courts over the next six to 12 months,” she said.
“I do remain concerned that defendants may use the coronavirus lockdowns to justify their crimes as we saw in the Anthony Williams case.
“The stresses of lockdown have impacted everyone, but this can never be used as a justification to kill a partner.
“Stress and poor mental health do not cause domestic abuse. Perpetrators choose to abuse.
“There needs to be a clear understanding of what happens in domestic homicides and we need to see reviews in all cases where there is a possible link to domestic abuse.”