Last week saw the publication of new legal guidance by the CPS on prosecuting Domestic Homicide. An important step, brought about by extensive discussions with us, the family and friends of Joanna Simpson who was killed by her estranged husband in 2010. Despite preparing a grave beforehand, her killer could be acquitted of murder due to diminished responsibility.
What are the changes and why are they important?
This guidance requires far more extensive understanding and consideration of the history of domestic abuse, and critically a thorough investigation into the character of the defendant and the victim. It guards against acceptance of manslaughter pleas using the partial defences of diminished responsibility and loss of self-control. And it requires prosecutors to engage with expert witnesses (typically psychiatrists) on the broader profile of the defendant rather than just the psychiatric assessment of the defendant through interview.
If properly adopted this will have a significant impact on the quality of convictions in these crimes. Partial defences are commonly used in domestic homicide (our research showed it being used in 50% of cases). We talk a great deal about there being no excuses for domestic abuse, and yet when the worst happens the law provides exactly that. Of course, there are some great examples of prosecutions where past history and character has been very carefully and effectively considered. There are also examples where circumstances are such that a partial defence is entirely appropriate. This new guidance is designed to ensure those strong examples become the norm, and that partial defences are only used by the most deserving cases.
Partial defences run on the basis that the offender is not somehow responsible, and offenders who use it typically show little remorse and are in fact running a defence which says it was either because of their state of mind or the circumstances, often citing the character and actions of the victim as the reason for that. A claim of this kind is accepted at plea without a trial in just fewer than 50% of cases. Successful or not, victims families have to suffer trials or plea acceptance which often assassinate the character of the victim, poorly challenged by the prosecution. Where successful they are left with the incomprehensible sense that their loved one has not had a fair trial and the perpetrator has literally got away with murder. Our research showed that ¼ of all convicted offenders was successful in a defence of this kind.
And what of disposal? The discount in tariff can be substantial and it is not unusual for those convicted of manslaughter to be released from custody within 5 years of the crime. Sometimes they get a hospital order and come under the mental health tribunal process, and again it is not unusual for them to be released within 3 years. It is notable to understand that where the perpetrator is the parent of bereaved children, they still retain parental rights. The repercussions continue when the family courts look on access requests more favorably where the offender was found not guilty to murder.
So tightening the criminal justice system through this guidance to avoid exploitation of the loopholes in homicide is fundamental if we believe we should send the message that domestic abuse is unacceptable, if we want to give victims’ families the chance to find a way forward, and critically if we want to protect the innocent child victims who live in fear of a violent perpetrator and deserve time to grow and repair in peace.
For Immediate Publication
May 20th, 2014
DOMESTIC HOMICIDE campaigners have welcomed a change in Crown Prosecution Service policy after a new guidance note was issued following meetings with a victim's family lobbying.
The campaign team from the Joanna Simpson Foundation welcomed the news and declared the measure a ‘huge step in the right direction’ for victims' families.
The Foundation has been campaigning for changes that improve the way the CPS handles prosecutions of cases of domestic homicide.
The Foundation was set up in the memory of Joanna Brown whose killer was convicted of manslaughter despite digging a grave ahead of the attack and burying her body in Windsor Great Park. Her killer claimed diminished responsibility and the trial deteriorated into a trial of character of both the accused and his victim.
Hetti Barkworth Nanton, Chair of the Foundation commented: “I am delighted that the CPS has taken this important step forward to strengthen the way domestic violence homicide trials are carried out.
Together with Diana Parkes, Jo’s mother and Patron of the Foundation, we have been campaigning for more than 2 years and met with senior members of the judiciary, MPs, prosecutors, and the police, to press for a serious review of the way such prosecutions are managed.
As the family and friends of Joanna we were all made to suffer twice, first through the deadly attack and secondly in a traumatic court case.
Although nothing can bring Jo back, we have decided to honour her name by campaigning to try and prevent other people suffering as we had to. This is a huge step in the right direction.
We will continue to campaign to reform our outdated murder laws and raise funds to support programmes which help children who have suffered at the hands of domestic abuse."
Alison Saunders, the Director of Public Prosecutions, said: “In some cases of homicide linked to domestic violence, the defence will seek to avoid a conviction for murder by distorting the truth about the character of the victim and defendant. Prosecutors should always challenge these attempts and this new guidance will help ensure that they are fully prepared to do so.
The Crown Prosecution Service is ready to listen to the concerns of those whose lives have been affected by crime and I am grateful to the family and friends of Joanna Simpson for raising this important issue. This dialogue has led to changes in our guidance to help prosecutors meet the challenges in these cases.”
The revised guidance can be found on the CPS website.