For the first time psychological abuse as a form of domestic violence will be argued as a defence to murder in the Court of Appeal next week. Sally Challen’s 18 year conviction for murder will be put under review as her legal team argues that decades of coercive and controlling behaviour at the hands of her husband were the trigger for her violent attack. If successful, the conviction for murder would be commuted to manslaughter or else lead to a retrial.
The couple’s two sons, James and David, issued a statement at the weekend explaining why they have led the campaign backing their mother’s appeal. They call their mother’s appeal ‘a landmark case’ and the first to use coercive control as a part of a defence to murder. ‘This appeal crucially provides an opportunity to recognise the lifelong abuse Sally suffered and, in the hope of understanding the cause of her actions, provides an understanding of how she was driven to take the life of our father, Richard,’ they wrote. You can read more about the Sally Challen case on the Justice Gap here.
During Sally Challen’s trial, the two brothers said that the jury heard their mother being portrayed as a person ‘consumed by jealousy’ who ‘having suspected our father of cheating on her; counted his viagra pills and took his life because she found herself eaten up with jealously at his friendships with other women’.
‘As sons of both Richard and Sally, we have sought to bring to light a true understanding of the events that lead up to our father’s death,’ they continued. ‘Our mother’s actions were not led by the emotions of jealously nor rage but stemmed from the life long campaign of fear and psychological abuse waged by our father through his coercive controlling behaviour.’
In August 2010, Sally Challen killed her husband Richard Challen at the family home. ‘Afterwards, our mother drove to Beachy Head, parked up and walked to the cliffs to end her life. It took a suicide prevention team hours to talk her down, after which she was arrested for murder,’ James and David wrote.
Sally Challen was was only 15 when she met their 21 year old father. ‘At first he was charming but gradually the abuse began. He bullied and humiliated her, isolated her from her friends and family, controlled who she could socialise with, controlled her money, restricted her movement and created a culture of fear and dependency,’ the sons wrote. ‘Our father fed into our mother’s mind the abuse she was suffering over 40 years was normal. Whilst he forced strict restrictions on her behaviour, he himself, would have numerous affairs and visit brothels. If she challenged him, he would gaslight her, make her question her sanity and furthermore seek to control us as sons to believe our mother was mad.’
In 2015, coercive control became an offence and the draft of the Domestic Abuse Bill seeks to extend the definition of domestic abuse, see here. Coercive control covers an act or pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape, and regulating their everyday behaviour.
Harriet Wistrich, the solicitor representing Sally Challen and co-founder of the law reform group Justice for Women, said that domestic violence was ‘often visualized in the form of a woman with a black eye or broken arm’. ‘The concept of coercive and controlling behavior provides a much more comprehensive picture of the combined methods of coercion and control, that can lead a victim to become so subject to the bullying of another, that her liberty is effectively removed,’ she said. ‘We are not arguing in this case that coercive control would provide a complete defence to murder, but the circumstances of a lifelong marriage amount to a form of provocation, which should reduce a murder conviction to manslaughter.’
As of May last year there had been nearly 300 prosecutions of coercive behaviour and psychological abuse, however this will be the first time in which an appellant will seek to rely on the defence to a murder charge since its introduction in 2015.