An outdated legal defence for women based on “marital coercion” is to be abolished. The law allows women absolution from offences, excluding treason and murder, if the offence was committed in their husband’s presence or under his coercion.
The defence gained public attention recently when Vicky Pryce (pictured right), former wife of Chris Huhne, unsuccessfully tried to use the defence to escape liability for falsely claiming to have been driving her husband’s car when it was caught speeding. Many people found it shocking that a woman – particularly one who was once a joint head of the Economic Service – would try to use this defence. The chief objection is that it is outdated, sexist, and relies on the assumption that a woman is ultimately under the control of her husband.
Governmental support for the abolition of this law was confirmed by Lord Taylor of Holbeach. The Home Office minister has stated that an amendment to the antisocial behaviour, crime and policing bill will be considered next week during the bill’s report stage. It is widely expected that the amendment, designed to repeal the offending section of the Criminal Justice Act 1925, will be approved by peers. Assuming this proceeds as planned, the removal of this defence will take effect two months after parliament passes the bill.
The amendment was first tabled by Lord Pannick QC in 2013. Cross-bench peer Lord Pannick said “I welcome the government’s decision to remove an absurd law that should have been abolished a long time ago.”
Lord Pannick went on to say that “the defence is widely regarded as a relic of a bygone age.”
Lord Taylor, meanwhile, drew attention in a letter to peers that calls for the abolition of the law had been taking place for some time. In 1977, the Law Commission was calling for the law to be abolished.
The concept of duress will remain unaffected by the removal of the law. Duress relates to cases where somebody committed an offence but did so under coercion. This defence is generally applicable, and is separate and independent from the concept of marital coercion. The concerns around marital coercion relate not to the concept of a woman being coerced by her husband, but by the underlying assumption that married women are under the control of their husbands in a way separate from general coercion. It also carries the implication that men are not subject to marital coercion, and that women in unmarried relationships are not subject to coercion by partners in the same way as their married counterparts.