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Bishops’ further changes to Domestic Abuse Bill resisted

12 February 2021

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THE Bishops of London and Gloucester have pressed the Government to amend its Domestic Abuse Bill as the legislation is debated in the House of Lords (News, 5 February).

During the Bill’s Committee Stage on Wednesday of last week, the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, co-sponsored an amendment that would create a new criminal offence of non-fatal strangulation.

International research suggested that women whose partners strangled them were 800 per cent more likely to be killed, Bishop Mullally told peers during the debate.

The law as it stood too often led to abusers who had suffocated their partners without actually killing them not being charged, or facing only less serious charges, she argued. “At present, the police too often deal with non-fatal strangulation as a tick-box exercise on a risk-assessment form rather than as a crime.”

Baroness Newlove had introduced the amendment by explaining that strangulation was used by abusers to frighten and exercise control over their victims. “Being strangled is terrifying,” she said. “Less pressure than it takes to open a canned drink stops blood flowing to the brain.”

Adding her support to the amendment, Bishop Mullally said that the rise in domestic abuse during the pandemic had emphasised the need for Britain to modernise its laws and respond to this “heinous crime”.

Speaking for the Government, Lord Wolfson of Tredegar said that ministers “unequivocally support the intention behind these amendments”, and had made a commitment to bringing in a new offence of non-fatal strangulation. It would not accept this amendment, however, because, as currently drafted, it was “problematic”.

The Government had concerns about how to prove any new offence; the question of consent, which had not been addressed in the amendment; the maximum penalty (seven years’ imprisonment, which was longer than the sentence for grievous bodily harm); and other technical legal issues, Lord Wolfson said.

As such, he could not promise that an eventual government amendment creating the new offence would come in time to be included in the Domestic Abuse Bill.

Baroness Newlove agreed to withdraw her amendment, although she insisted that this Bill was the right place to create the new offence. “I do not want any more blood on my hands, knowing that non-fatal strangulation is going to have to wait to go into another Bill,” she said.

Later, the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, spoke in support of a separate amendment to create a new legal defence for victims of domestic abuse if they attacked their abusers.

The proposed changes would mirror changes to the common law on self-defence, which had been introduced a decade ago to allow homeowners more leeway in using force against intruders in their homes.

In her regular conversations with prisoners, prison staff, and prison chaplains, a common theme emerged of how many women in the justice system had experienced domestic abuse, Bishop Treweek, the Bishop for Prisons, told peers.

“Women become trapped in a vicious cycle of victimisation and criminal activity. This becomes a driver for their offending — in some circumstances, defending themselves against their abuser. These amendments provide an opportunity to extend much better legal protection to the victims of domestic abuse whose experiences lead them to offend.”

Lord Wolfson, however, again said that the Government would resist the amendment. Judges and others in the justice system were already taking these concerns into account, and their flexibility and speed were better ways of adapting common law than parliamentary statute, he argued.

Many defences were already available in law for those who killed or harmed their abusers after a period of suffering abuse, he said.

“There is also a need to balance recognition of the abuse suffered, and its impact on the victim, with the need to ensure that, wherever possible, people do not resort to criminal behaviour. The Government believe that the balance is currently reflected in the law.”

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