Sally Challen's Case Is A Watershed Moment For How Domestic Abuse Is Seen In The Eyes Of The Law

There is an epidemic of violence against women and girls in our country and the options for victims are decreasing. The impact of Sally's case on women’s safety, freedom and mental and physical health is enormous.
PA Ready News UK

Today is a day to feel hopeful. After nearly a decade in prison for killing her abusive husband of 31 years, Sally Challen is finally a free woman. At a hearing on Friday afternoon, a judge reduced her murder charge to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. She will not face a retrial.

Women’s rights campaigners across the country are rightly celebrating this watershed moment – Challen’s case is the first in which ‘coercive control’ has been used to appeal a murder conviction.

Coercive control is a form of domestic violence in which victims are subjected to emotional and psychological abuse to create isolation and dependency. It has been recognised by experts since the 1980s but only became a criminal offence in 2015. This case has raised the profile of coercive control as an issue and will hopefully lead to increased judicial understanding of domestic abuse, in which fear and violence are mechanisms of control.

But we shouldn’t be too eager to claim victory. A statement from Lady Justice Hallet, one of the judges who heard the appeal, speaks volumes. She said: “There might be those out there who think this appeal is all about coercive control but it’s not. Primarily it’s about diagnosis of disorders that were undiagnosed at the time of the trial.”

In Challen’s appeal, the court was told that she had two mental disorders when she killed her husband; bipolar disorder and dependent personality disorder. Challen claimed diminished responsibility in light of these conditions. But while the court acknowledged that these conditions were exacerbated by her husband’s coercive control, it was not evidence of the abuse itself which led to the reduced charge.

However the decision was arrived at, it is a win for Sally Challen. But, for the sake of abused women everywhere, the idea that women only commit violence because they are either ‘bad’ or ‘mad’ needs to be challenged.

When abusive men are killed by their wives or girlfriends it is not because they are ‘mad’. The minority of abusers who end up dead do so because the women they abuse reach breaking point in a society that consistently fails to take domestic abuse seriously.

A UN report last year found that, worldwide, the most dangerous place for women is their own home, with more than half of all female homicide victims in 2017 being killed by a partner or family member. In England and Wales that translates to two women a week who are killed by a current or former partner, while one in four women experience domestic abuse in their lifetime. In just two years, reports of domestic violence in the UK have increased by forty percent.

Despite this, funding for domestic abuse services has been cut, refuge spaces are falling and in 2016-17 one in five of all referrals to refuges were declined due to lack of space.

There is an epidemic of violence against women and girls in our country and the options for victims are decreasing. The impact of this on women’s safety, freedom and mental and physical health is enormous.

On Friday, research by Birmingham University found that women who experience domestic abuse are three times more likely to develop a serious mental health condition than women who are not abused. They are also twice as likely to have some form of mental illness already, before the abuse begins.

These figures should not surprise us - abusers are adept at preying on women who are already vulnerable, while prolonged abuse of course has a devastating impact on both mental and physical wellbeing. But we should not pathologise the women who experience abuse as a substitute for addressing abuse itself.

Sally Challen’s husband subjected her to 31 years of coercive control. He raped her, he isolated her, he belittled her. Her mental health condition should not be presented as more relevant to his death than this abuse. If society cannot step in to take action against abusers we cannot be surprised if, in the end, some women take violent, desperate action themselves.

While not all women experience domestic abuse, the fear of male violence impacts us all. That is why the Women’s Equality Party fights so hard for equality, because while any woman lives in fear none of us can be truly free.

Today is a day to hope for better. Sally Challen’s case has raised awareness of domestic abuse and she is free to go home. But we must not stop fighting for equality until all women are free.

Tabitha Morton is the Women’s Equality Party GLA 2020 candidate and spokesperson on violence against women and girls