September 21 2023

Sally Challen appeal: ‘He was systematically trying to break her down’

Sally Challen appeal: ‘He was systematically trying to break her down’

Sally Challen appeal: ‘He was systematically trying to break her down’

The Court of Appeal is to hear the case of a woman who killed her husband after he subjected her to years of controlling behaviour and abuse. On Thursday the court will decide whether Sally Challen can appeal her conviction for a murder in 2011 before ‘coercive control’ became a crime.

  • You can read about the case on Justice for Women’s web site (here) and Julie Bindel has written about the case for the Feminist Current site at the end of last year (here).

Sally Challen killed her husband after he subjected her to years of controlling behaviour, including emotional and sexual abuse. In 2010, the mother of two picked up a hammer, which she had brought to the property, and hit her husband of 31 years over the head more than 20 times. She was subsequently tried for her husband’s murder in June 2011 and given a 22-year sentence, which was reduced by four years on appeal.

Challen explained a little about her background in a statement to new legal team: She described her ‘ old-fashioned upbringing’. ‘My mother did not think it was the thing for girls to go on to study and so I didn’t go on to do A Levels or university,’ she wrote. ‘There were no expectations that I should get a career.’ Just before her 16th birthday, she met Richard Challen and was ‘immediately besotted’ with the man six years her senior and he made her feel ‘adored’.

Julie Bindel, writing for Feminist Current, noted that many physical injuries are invisible ‘as the perpetrators know where to hit and the victims to cover up’. ‘Rape and sexual assault within abusive relationships are also largely invisible,’ she wrote. Richard Challen had reportedly anally raped Sally as punishment for being kissed by another man whilst on holiday.

According to Davina James-Hanman, an expert in ‘coercive control’, instructed by Sally’s current legal team, the effect of the control over the years was corrosive in the sense that Sally’s entrapment within the relationship was ‘so absolute that … she was unable to cope alone and establish an identity for herself that was separate from that which she had been taught’.

It emerged at trial that Richard Challen openly cheated on his wife for many years. She said she had seen him coming out of a brothel near her place of work. On the day he died, he told Sally to go out in the rain to buy bacon and eggs for his lunch. While she was out, he called a woman who he had met through an online dating agency. Sally Challen, suspecting that her husband had got her out of the house to call one of his girlfriends, called the phone company and confirmed her suspicions. Although she says that she does not recall her actions, this is when she picked up the hammer and struck Richard over the head.

Both of the couple’s sons supported their mother at trial. David, now 30 years old, said that he never felt angry at her. ‘I was exasperated at how it got to this point that she was in a cell. How someone so sweet and nice, loving and caring — who did everything for us — ended up in this position. But I knew she had no control. I know he was solely responsible for it.’

‘He was systematically trying to break her down, trying to mould her into what he wanted her to be and for her to never answer back. I feel there are thousands of women in these relationships who have met teenage sweethearts. Their life is controlled by the man and they think this is the norm.’
David Challen

Sally Challen’s nephew Hugo, told Bindel that the defence team did not bring up any of her husband’s abusive behaviour as the family were told ‘we are not trying Richard, we’re trying Sally’.

Permission to appeal was refused by the judge in June last year. However, the application has been renewed as the campaigning group Justice for Women wants new evidence about her husband’s controlling behaviour to be taken into account and will be heard on Thursday.

Her new legal team will argue that she was a victim of coercive control which was criminalised in 2015. It recognises that domestic abuse can occur in a number of ways other than violence, psychological abuse and controlling and coercive behaviour.

Harriet Wistrich, Sally Challen’s lawyer, and co-founder of Justice for Women, said that she was ‘very much the submissive person in the relationship’. ‘It was an extremely psychologically-controlling relationship in which she was not allowed to question him.’ She said the new law would have recognised that Challen had ‘killed out of a sense of total desperation rather than out of jealousy’.

According to the CPS, victims of domestic abuse will experience an average of 35 incidents of abuse before they contact the police or support services. It also revealed that Domestic abuse represents one in 10 crimes, as judges are being given updated sentencing guidelines to emphasise the seriousness of the crime.

New sentencing guidelines, published last Thursday, replace those published in 2006, highlight the extent of changes over the past 12 years. The Sentencing Council points out that the term ‘domestic abuse’ has now replaced ‘domestic violence’ to reflect the fact that offences can also involve psychological, sexual, financial or emotional abuse. They also refer, for the first time, to abuse perpetrated through emails, texts, social networking sites or tracking devices.

Police forces have new powers, such as domestic violence prevention orders (which allow senior officers or magistrates to temporarily ban dangerous offenders from their homes), to deal with domestic abuse but they do not seem to be utilised to the extent expected.  At the end of last year, it emerged that only 532 charges of coercive or controlling behaviour had been brought in England since 2015, despite the fact that more than 4,000 offences were recorded in England and Wales in a single year.