The new criminal offence of non-fatal strangulation and suffocation came into force yesterday. The legal campaign group, Centre for Women’s Justice, began lobbying Parliament to introduce the offence two years ago and it was finally introduced as an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. According to the group, the police previously treated cases that this offence would have been applicable to as ‘minor common assault’.
Under the Sentencing Council’s sentencing guidelines, the maximum sentence for a defendant who is convicted of common assault that is not racially/religiously aggravated is six months’ custody. The new offence of non-fatal strangulation and suffocation will have a far higher maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment. This means that it has the same maximum as that for the offence of assault occasioning actual bodily harm. Some alleged offences that would now be covered by the new offence could not be successfully pursued as assaults occasioning actual bodily harm because of the different evidential requirements around the harm element.
The Centre for Women’s Justice points to research in the United States which found that half of non-fatal strangulation cases ‘leave no visible injuries’ and that ‘even some fatal cases of strangulation have no external marks to the neck, although there are internal injuries’.
The Centre for Women’s Justice advocated for the creation of the offence of non-fatal strangulation and suffocation based on work with frontline domestic abuse services. The group argues that the experience of non-fatal strangulation is ‘terrifying’ and yet ‘often trivialised within the criminal justice system’. Other groups, including Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse, Stand up to Domestic Abuse, as well as the Domestic Abuse and Victims’ Commissioners have also pushed hard for a change in the law.
It is estimated by women’s charities that ‘20,000 women per year in the UK experience non-fatal strangulation or suffocation’. It is said to be ‘a tool of control in coercive relationships’ with women reporting that they ‘honestly believed they were going to die’ or that they were ‘being pressurised or coerced into strangulation during sex’. Strangulation is also said to be ‘the second most common method of killing of women by men’.
Despite the law coming into force, there remains concern that the offence will not be used. ‘Police and prosecutors must be educated to understand this unique form of assault, to bring it into the light of day and treat it with the seriousness it deserves,’ says Nogah Ofer, a solicitor at the Centre of Women’s Justice. Kate Brown, the Crown Prosecution Service lead for domestic abuse prosecutions has said that prosecutors are ‘determined to see justice done in every possible case’ and that the CPS is ‘developing training for prosecutors to ensure the offences are properly identified from the outset’.