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Homicide (Defence Of Provocation)

Volume 243: debated on Tuesday 17 May 1994

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4.12 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Homicide Act 1957 in respect of the defence of provocation.
The playwright Edward Bond said:
"You can live without kindness; you can't live without justice".
The injustice that I seek to remove is the blatantly sexist application of the law in homicide cases and the availability of the plea of provocation.

The Townswomen's Guilds recently produced a poster headed "Provocation—a male defence?", which showed a picture of a man, with the caption:
"man strangles nagging wife … sentence 18 months suspended."
and a picture of a woman, with the caption:
"after years of violent abuse, woman stabs husband … sentence life".
The poster went on to say:

"These are real life cases. Both defendants pleaded provocation. A successful plea reduces the sentence to manslaughter. The man was successful—the women was not."
This is the third time that the House has been asked to consider an amendment to the legal definition of provocation that would allow a woman who has experienced years of fear at the hands of a violent partner to name that as a cause if, driven beyond all endurance, she kills that partner.

I bring the Bill before the House because the plea of provocation is without doubt more easily available to men than to women. That perceived injustice does not concern only those of us in the House who share the belief that the law treats men and women differently. The Townswomen's Guilds recently presented a 40,000-signature petition to the Home Office, calling for the law to be changed, and that came from right across the political spectrum.

The noble Lord Ashley, then a Member of this place, first introduced a Bill to remove the present injustice in 1989. I presented a Bill last year and I return with it today. Hon. Members should make no mistake about it: this issue will not go away. If the Bill does not become law I, or some other hon. Member, will continue to present it or something similar until the British public are satisfied that justice, in the words of Lord Hewart, is
"manifestly and undoubtedly seen to be done."
Lord Ashley is presenting a similar Bill to the other House next week.

At the heart of the matter is the law that specifies that the conviction of murder carries a mandatory life sentence. It is despicable that a woman who has suffered years of sustained domestic violence and acts out of fear and desperation on behalf of herself and her children should be treated as a common murderer and put away for life. Pleas of diminished responsibility or provocation are the two ways in which a person who is obviously guilty of the crime can be given a lesser sentence. It has been obvious for years that the law operates two different systems when deciding what is provocation for men and what is provocation for women.

Women are always barred from pleading provocation if the death was not the result of an immediate and "sudden loss of control"; that is the language of the law. Part of the argument about why that is discriminatory revolves around the differences between men's and women's reactions. Men act immediately and their physical strength alone can mean instant death. Women often react more slowly. Inevitably, they must seek a weapon if they are to kill, and their fear may have to grow before they act. At present, however, the law does not recognise that difference. That oversight needs to be corrected.

The existing law and the judicial system that interprets it seem to work on the basic expectation that women must be completely obedient, submissive and subservient to their male partner's every whim. If they react after a sustained period of violence and abuse, or even in response to the threat of more to come, it is not understood or accepted as the reason for killing. The same underlying assumption does not apply to men.

Only in February, Mr. Roy Greech was given a two-year suspended sentence and walked free. The provocation that he had suffered was his wife's adultery—one of the 10 commandments that is broken, I am led to believe, by many people inside and outside this House. In Britain, adultery is not a legal crime and carries no sentence. Mr. Greech stabbed his wife 23 times and left the knife embedded in her throat. The judge told him:

"You have not only been a man of good character, but you are a good man also."
In 1991, Mr. Joseph McGrail killed his common law wife by kicking her in the stomach while she was drunk. The judge expressed his sympathy with Mr. McGrail, saying:

"this lady would have tried the patience of a saint".
Mr. Singh Bisla was given a suspended sentence after he strangled his wife. She had been nagging him and he wanted to shut her up. The judge told Mr. Bisla that he had "suffered".

Time and again the message is clear: it is the age-old message that is used against women whenever men do something violent to them—"She was asking for it." So British justice becomes an ass. Women can be murdered because they have affairs, are drunk or are nags. In some respects we have not moved on from 17th-century witch burnings.

Meanwhile, women like Sara Thornton, Carol Peters and Emma Humphreys still waste in prison. Emma Humphreys has been there for nearly 10 years. All three suffered years of violence and abuse and had been admitted to hospital because of the beatings that they suffered. They have been joined in prison by new women who are at the sharp end of that injustice, such as Josephine Smith. The organisation Justice for Women estimates that between 30 and 50 women are in prison although they have a history of being the victim.

Sara Thornton has been much maligned by the Home Office and some of the tabloid press, yet the police were called on many occasions when she was being assaulted and an Alcoholics Anonymous representative saw her violent husband punch her. A neighbour said that he had witnessed "her husband beat her black and blue" and she was admitted to hospital unconscious. Yet her husband was described as a "happy drunk". In Sara Thornton's case, the judge said that she could have walked out or gone upstairs. Why do judges never say that to people like Joseph McGrail? Where could women like Sara, Carol or Emma go? There is no national provision for women's refuges, and if the Government's current proposals about homelessness are not altered, there will be fewer places in those that exist.

In our society there is still a reluctance to admit that violence is used against women. It is often seen as being the woman's fault and she is given little support. The Select Committee on Home Affairs, Lord Lane and the Law Commission have recommended that the law in relation to homicide be reviewed. Lord Chief Justice Taylor said that it is Parliament's job to review the law. It is obvious that, unless Parliament protects these women by amending the provocation law, the judiciary will continue to hand out uneven and unequal justice.

I stress that the Bill is not a licence for women to commit murder. These organisations, august bodies and personages would not support it if it were. In New South Wales, Australia, where the law has been changed, there is no evidence of any "licence to kill". The Bill proposes a recognition of provocation as a mitigating plea where domestic violence has been endured but it would still be a matter for a judge and jury to decide in all cases. We should recognise that we are legislating for desperate women who are victims of brutality—victims of a domestic war—and they should not be put in prison, especially for life.

I do not stand alone in my attempt to change the law. Apart from my many parliamentary colleagues who support the Bill—I believe, on both sides of the House—I have the privilege of speaking for the majority of women in this country who want to see the law changed. An alliance of women's organisations has been formed to campaign for the changes in my Bill. More than 6 million women are directly represented by groups such as the National Federation of Women's Institutes, the TUC Women's Committee, the Townswomen's Guild, National Women's Aid, Southall Black Sisters, and Women for Justice. All these groups have campaigned for a change in the law.

There is no question but that injustice occurs every time that a man walks free from a murder conviction under the provocation law while women who have suffered years of domestic violence are imprisoned. The question is: does Parliament still have the 17th-century mentality to which I referred, or does it feel that the time has come to change this unjust law? I give Parliament the opportunity to change the law.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Harry Cohen, Mrs. Teresa Gorman, Ms Clare Short, Mrs. Barbara Roche, Ms Jean Corston, Mrs. Helen Jackson, Ms Glenda Jackson, Mrs. Llin Golding, Mr. Bruce Grocott, Mr. Ken Livingstone, Mr. Malcolm Chisholm and Mr. Nicholas Winterton.