A number of murder cases are being re-examined to investigate possible unsafe convictions where coercive and controlling behaviour may not have been available as a defence, the Observer can reveal.
The Criminal Cases Review Commission began the painstaking work of sifting through 3,000 cold cases in the wake of the landmark case of Sally Challen, who was jailed for life after killing her abusive husband in 2010 but later had her murder conviction quashed in the wake of new, coercive control laws introduced in England and Wales.
Fresh evidence that found she was suffering from two mental disorders at the time of the killing meant her case was returned to the court of appeal in 2019, and she walked free due to time already served after submitting a plea of manslaughter.
Now the CCRC is appealing to anyone who has had their case rejected by the court of appeal and believes they may have suffered a miscarriage of justice because coercive control – a sustained pattern of abuse intended to harm, punish or frighten – was not explored as a factor during their trial.
So far, the commission has identified at least five cases which are undergoing further investigation and could be returned for appeal.
“This is not a static number. Investigations are continuing, and hopefully it will go up as more cases are identified,” said Linda Lee, one of the CCRC commissioners. “We are looking at murder cases where coercive control may have had a serious impact on events but wasn’t raised because nobody recognised it or thought of it at the time.”
Coercive control was made a criminal offence in 2015 and can be taken into account by the courts in murder cases where the victim’s controlling behaviour affected the defendant prior to the offence.
Challen’s son, the domestic abuse campaigner David Challen, said: “Our family is really welcoming of a review of any cases where someone has killed as a result of their experience of coercive control and that abuse was not recognised.
“My mother says that many other women who are victims of abuse are in prison serving life sentences for murder instead of manslaughter – she knows this because she has met them.
“If only a small handful of cases or even one case can be overturned as a result of this process, it will be worth it because the transformative impact on the life of that person and their family is huge.”
Lee explained: “We’re not just looking at the cases of cis women who were in heterosexual relationships. We are inviting anyone who believes coercive control played a role in their case – and there may be potential to examine fresh evidence – to make an application.” Lee, a former president of the Law Society, said she could not comment on individual cases but that one scenario, for example, may be that a mental health issue stemming from coercive control was not explored at trial but warranted the gathering of fresh expert evidence.
Harriet Wistrich, a lawyer with the Centre for Women’s Justice, which has done some work with the CCRC, said: “The problem with some of the cases that we’ve seen is that women do not disclose abuse or are too frightened or ashamed to discuss it for a variety of reasons, including that they may fear for their safety or that their children will be taken away.”
Kate Paradine, chief executive of the charity Women in Prison, said: “Nearly two-thirds of female prisoners are survivors of domestic abuse. We know that earlier intervention to provide safety and support could have prevented women being swept into the criminal justice system.
“Domestic abuse and coercive control wreak a devastating impact on survivors and our society, so we must ensure all parts of the justice system take this into account.”
• This article was amended on 15 July 2021 to clarify that coercive control is not a specific defence in itself but rather can be taken into account by the courts.