The Joanna Simpson Foundation is working with a number of agencies to ensure we have child centric policies in place which recognise their needs and serves their best interests. This includes:
Crown Prosecution Service
Ministry of Justice
Members of Parliament
Royal College of Psychiatrists
Prosecuting Domestic Homicides and the Protection of Children
50% of perpetrators of domestic homicide do not accept full responsibility for their crimes. Instead they claim that they were either suffering from a medical condition which affected their judgement, or they somehow lost control. Half of these are found not guilty of murder and are convicted of manslaughter, with substantially reduced sentences.
A defence of this kind typically results in a character assassination of the deceased victim. In addition, the use of children in criminal proceedings, who are often the only surviving witnesses to the crime, is fraught with difficulty.
These defences can result in a highly imbalanced record of the crime and the events leading up to it and leave children feeling they have let their deceased parent down by not having a voice. When the criminal justice system is seen to acknowledge the reduced responsibility of the perpetrator, it can leave children with many confusing conclusions where they reach out to understand where the responsibility lies, and it is not uncommon to blame themselves.
In May 2014 the CPS released their first ever Legal Guidance to Prosecutors in Domestic Homicide targeting the current imbalance in the system, requiring far greater preparation to rebut character assassination of the victim, appropriate application of mental health issues, and careful consideration of the use of child victims. The Joanna Simpson Foundation welcomes these changes and continue to work with the Crown Prosecution Service to support effective implementation of these changes. Alison Saunders DPP acknowledged the work of the Foundation which resulted in these changes:
“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.”
Domestic homicide kills up to 3 women a week and affects up to 200 children a year.
Our existing murder laws have remained substantially unchanged since 1957 when an ability to avoid conviction for murder where there were seen to be significant mitigating circumstances was morally appropriate where the alternative would require mandatory hanging.
In domestic homicide, it is common that the facts of the case are undisputed (who did it and associated evidence). However, the structure of the law allows a defence in these circumstances which changes the conviction from murder to manslaughter and is based on ‘why I did it’ and proving mitigating circumstances. In essence, considering whether the ‘excuse’ is substantial enough to find them not guilty of murder.
This structure drives substantial cost for the state running trials which would otherwise be undisputed, and is commonly exploited in domestic homicides.
The Joanna Simpson Foundation is currently engaged with back bench MPs, and the Ministry of Justice, to lobby for a Royal Commission into the murder law which brings it up to date with the values of society and ensures it meets the needs not just of defendants, but also victims, and particularly child victims of domestic homicide.
The way in which a perpetrator of violence and homicide is handled through sentencing and prison arrangements is an important aspect when looking at the impact on children and their ability to feel safe. This does not mean that its right to say that everybody who kills should go to prison for the rest of their lives. The debate is complex, and indeed for children who have lost one parent, the ‘loss’ of the other parent ‘forever’ to the penal system may not be the right answer.
What is important is that sentencing is seen as fair, is transparent, and understandable.
In our research of a sample of 91 cases of domestic homicide, we found that 25% of perpetrators were successful in a partial defence, and the average sentenced period in custody was less than 5 years, representing a 75% discount from those who were convicted of murder.
The Joanna Simpson Foundation is in discussion with policy makers in this area to explore how sentencing in these cases can better meet the needs of these young victims. As well as helping them feel safe and protected, these crimes must be punished in a way that gives the message to children and society as a whole that they are the most serious crime and will be punished appropriately.