Husbands who kill wives can no longer claim they were provoked

United Kingdom

Husbands who kill nagging wives will no longer be able to claim they were provoked, under a radical shake-up of the murder laws.

By Rosa Prince, Political Correspondent
Last Updated: 1:31AM BST 22 Jul 2008

Suspects will also be prevented from pleading not guilty to murder by claiming it was a "crime of passion" because their partner was having an affair.

The reforms are designed to ensure domestic violence is treated as other forms of homicide.

As a result of the changes, battered wives who kill their abusers will be able to defend themselves against a murder charge by claiming diminished responsibility.

Following several years of consultation, the Government will next week announce the end of the "crime of passion" defence of provocation used by virtually all male defendants pleading not guilty to murder of a female partner.

Around 100 men a year kill their former or current partners, and provocation - such as failing to cook a meal, or persistent nagging - is the main form of defence used by barristers.

Relatives have complained that they have found it upsetting when murder suspects invoke lurid allegations about the victims' private lives.

In contrast, it is comparatively difficult for lawyers representing the 30 women a year on average who kill their partners to argue that they were provoked, as the crime tends not to take place in the heat of the moment, but is typically pre-planned.

While provocation is likely to remain on the statute book as a defence, it will be limited to the most serious instances, and will not include adultery or nagging.

The reforms are based on a 2006 review of the homicide laws by the Law Commission, and are backed by groups ranging from the Association of Chief Police Officers to Justice for Women.

At the time, the Commissioners complained that the murder laws were "a mess" and said that while appeal judges often did in practice free battered women who killed their abusive partners, this was not available as a straightforward defence in the first place.

One of the Commissioners, Prof Jeremy Holder, told The Telegraph: "The provocation laws have been a constant source of problems for the courts. To a large extent, there is a desire to be more lenient in the sympathetic cases, such as battered women, but the courts lack the laws to address this."

The proposed changes were welcomed by women's groups and law reformers.

A spokesman for Justice for Women said: "We welcome a change in the law. The women we deal with kill in desperation after suffering broken limbs, rape and constant fear. In contrast, at the moment men can get off a murder charge just because their wife is considered a nag."

Emma Scott, spokesman for Rights of Women, said: "Rights of Women has long had grave concerns that the current law continues to discriminate against women who kill and that the defence of provocation in particular is entirely inadequate in dealing with these situations."

In 1997, Joseph Swinburne was sentenced to 200 hours community service after he stabbed his wife 11 times when she told him she was leaving him for another man.

Kiranjit Ahluwalia was jailed for life for killing her violent husband in 1989 by setting his feet on fire following years of abuse. She was freed on appeal three years later, and her story made into a film.

The changes will also make it easier to prosecute gang members who join in an attack which results in murder, even if they did not wield the knife themselves.

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