Last night a cabinet minister accused Britain’s most senior judge of defending “our own version of honour killings” as the government clashed with the Law Lords over reforms to the law on murder.
Harriet Harman, the Minister for Equalities, said that the government would not bow to pressure from the judiciary to preserve the age-old law of provocation, despite coming under criticism from Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, the Senior Law Lord.
“This defence is our own version of honour killings and we are going to outlaw it,” Harman said in an interview with The Observer.
“We have had the discussion, we have had the debate, and we have decided and are not going to bow to judicial protests. I am determined that women should understand that we won’t brook any excuses for domestic violence.”
Defence by provocation is frequently used by men who have murdered their wives, claiming they acted under provocation from infidelity or verbal aggravation. If it can be proved that someone has been “provoked to lose his self-control”, then the charge is downgraded from murder to manslaughter.
This form of defence is deeply problematic. Not only does it transfer blame from the killer to the victim, making it offensive toward the loved-ones of the dead, but because it only applies to murders that happen under the “red mist” of anger it intrinsically favours men and discriminates against the primary victims of domestic abuse: women and children.
On average one in four women in the UK will suffer domestic abuse in their lifetime and two women are killed by a current or former partner every week. More shocking still, some criminologists estimate that domestic violence is up to 140 per cent higher than government statistics suggest.
Successful prosecutions for domestic violence rose from 46 per cent in December 2003 to 65 per cent in 2006/7. However, many forms of emotional and psychological abuse are not classified as crimes, although their effects can be as devastating and permanent as any physical scar: 64 per cent of women who have been the victims of domestic abuse experience post-traumatic stress disorder, 48 per cent have depression, and 18 per cent attempt or commit suicide.
Defence by provocation takes no account of the lasting psychological trauma suffered by thousands of victims of domestic violence every day. Because women and children are physically weaker than men, murders committed by victims tend to be premeditated and therefore subject to the full might of the law.
I do not believe that defence by provocation should be outlawed. It is important to acknowledge mitigating circumstances in every case to ensure that justice is served and the sword does not outweigh the scales. Nonetheless, domestic violence remains one of the most complex subjects in Britain today, with most victims suffering 35 assaults before they talk to the police.
If this is to change, the taboo must be tackled and we as a people must be more aware of the deafening silence that surrounds violence behind closed doors.