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The Justice System and Abuse Victims: Persecution or Protection?

Trigger Warning: Please note that this article discusses domestic abuse and violence. Reader discretion is therefore advised.

Women who murder their abusive partners are being failed by the United Kingdom's justice system. The number of female abuse victims who have murdered their partners is not very high. However, when women do murder their partners, in most cases, there is a background of abuse. Researchers studying 92 cases where women had killed men over a decade found that 77 per cent of them had experienced abuse from their deceased partners. Yet, far too often victims of domestic abuse who murder their abusers have their victimhood and abuse histories ignored in court and are treated solely as assailants, to the detriment of both their individual wellbeing and the fairness of the justice system.

Women who are accused of killing their abusive partners often face improper sentencing. Despite killing their abusers, female domestic abuse victims are unlikely to be acquitted on the basis of self-defense. Of the 92 cases studied in the aforementioned research, 43 per cent were convicted of murder, 46 per cent of manslaughter and only 7 per cent were acquitted. Too often abuse histories and the psychological effects of abuse are ignored during sentencing.

Moreover, women who kill their abusive partners are not only failed during sentencing but also from the moment they enter the justice system. Often these women have little experience of being arrested and the criminal justice system and therefore, they may either be allocated or choose improper legal representation. These are often lawyers with less knowledge of how to adequately defend abuse victims. Women may also struggle to disclose that they were in abusive relationships, particularly to male lawyers if they are disclosing sexual abuse. Regardless, even if women do disclose abuse, this abuse history still may be ignored in court by both lawyers and judges. 14 out of 17 women studied believed their abuse histories had not been taken into account effectively during their trials and, in some instances, even during their appeals. In multiple cases, women had been advised by their lawyers to not bring up their abuse histories, in order to “not speak ill of the dead”. In one particular case, a judge claimed that there had been “no violence committed towards her from the deceased in the years leading up to the killing”, despite recent instances of rape.

The use of weapons is also a significant factor in deciding a sentence; offenders who use weapons are likely to get higher sentences. This is detrimental to female abuse victims because women who kill their partners are overwhelmingly more likely to use weapons. This is due to women’s relative size and physical strength and knowledge of their abuser’s ability to be violent. Women get comparatively higher sentences for killing their abusive partners than male offenders, often due to their use of weapons. For instance, Sally Challen was jailed for 15 years after murdering her abusive husband with a hammer in comparison to Anthony Williams who was jailed for only five years after strangling his wife.

This discrepancy is also present in other countries; according to the American Civil Liberties Union, women who kill their partners spend an average of 15 years in jail, whereas men tend to serve two to six years. Arguably, this inequality in sentencing is not only due to the use of weapons but also due to societal misogyny. Female abuse victims who murder their partners get higher sentences than their male counterparts due to societal stigma; female murderers inherently subvert gender norms which present women as nurturing and subservient, as opposed to violent. Thus, feasibly the societal revulsion for violent women, regardless of the necessity of their violence, results in punishment in the form of higher sentences for female abuse victims.

The solutions to this issue are diverse yet very feasible. Court processes must be reformed to specifically support abuse victims; for instance, those involved in the legal process must adopt a trauma-based approach when dealing with abuse victims. Furthermore, sentencing must consider abuse histories and should aim to avoid unfairly penalising abuse victims for seeking to escape their abuser.

Fundamentally, more must be done to prevent the root issue: domestic abuse. Many women who kill their abusive partners do so as a last resort and have previously tried other measures, such as reporting their abuse. Yet, abuse victims are often likely to face problems when trying to leave their partners or seeking protection from the police. For example, Shana Grice was murdered by her ex-boyfriend, despite reporting him to the police several times. In response to her reports, the police fined her gbp 90. This tragic instance proves a broader societal failure in the way victims of domestic abuse are treated. This is then also reflected in the justice system which unfairly penalises abuse victims for attempting to escape this abuse.

In summary, far too often women are forced into murdering their partners due to societal failures to adequately protect victims of abuse and penalise abusers. They are then unfairly punished by a justice system that fundamentally fails domestic abuse victims.


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