coercive control: a new criminal defence?

The Serious Crime Act 2015 introduced to the English legal system a new offence of ‘controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate family relationship’ under s76. An offence is committed if a person (A)  continuously behaves in a way that is controlling or coercive towards another person (B) who they are ‘personally connected’ with, and that the behaviour has a serious effect on B by the A inflicting it.

This has been used strictly as an offence within the UK, with 9052 offences recorded in the UK in 2017-18. This definition was an extension to many abuse claims, meaning that victims could report behaviour that led them to feel that they were controlled and coerced.

However, in the recent weeks, the appeal case of Sally Challen has been drawn to the attention of the court. Sally Challen was convicted of murdering her husband in 2010, having suffered abuse from him for a significant period of time. She felt as though there was no way out for her, and it was his coercive and controlling behaviour that drove her to this action. Her initial defence was diminished responsibility, which would reduce her conviction from murder to manslaughter. However, she was convicted of murder and sentenced to a minimum of 22 years imprisonment, later reduced to 18 years at appeal.

With the support of her sons, once the new offence of coercive control was introduced, Sally Challen started to build her case for an appeal to overturn her conviction due to the defence of diminished responsibility on the basis of psychological illness due to the coercive control that she suffered at the hands of her husband. The Court of Appeal heard this new evidence at the end of February, Sally Challen’s conviction was overturned and a re-trial ordered. This is yet to be heard.

Should Sally be successful in her appeal, this could potentially introduce a new defence for murder, or certainly change the nature of the defence of diminished responsibility!

This compares to a similar case in Missouri, US in 2015. In this case, a woman (Gypsy Rose) murdered her mother, who had brought her up to believe that she had several illnesses and isolated her from other children her age throughout her life. She was told that she had cancer, and also forced to use a walking frame and, from the age of 7, a wheelchair. Gypsy Rose began to realise that she was not as unwell as her mother had led her to believe. She started to communicate with others online and soon had planned, alongside another, her mother’s murder. Gypsy rose was convicted of ‘second-degree murder’, having planned the murder of her mother. Her partner in crime, Nicholas GodeJohn, was convicted of ‘first-degree murder’.

The question is, following Sally Challen’s case: would Gypsy Rose, if her case had been one that happened in England and therefore falling under English law, have been able to rely on coercive control on the basis of her mother’s behaviour, as a partial defence to her actions? The answer to this question, I think is yes. Although, due to the complexity and rarity of cases like Gypsy’s, the prosecution were sympathetic to her position and did not seek the death penalty for either Gypsy or Nicholas, I would suggest that there could be more done to be sympathetic to her position. Whilst she did aid and abet in the plans to kill her mother, and this of course carries along with it a need for punishment. It could be suggested that Gypsy will have been suffering from psychological illness as a result of the coercive control that she had been subjected to throughout her life.


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