International Women’s Day 2017 has been heralded by Prime Minister Theresa May’s announcement that there will be further reforms to strengthen and advance the protections afforded to women who have been the victims of domestic violence: a crime that continues to blight the lives of many women.
Whilst any reform to enhance the protections given to women domestic violence victims must be welcomed, International Women’s Day 2017 provides a timely opportunity to reflect on the extent to which these reforms disguise a more troubling reality.
For over two decades Justice for Women, the pro-bono group for whom I volunteer, has represented a cause no politician or agenda setter wishes to champion: that of women who kill as a result of the experience of severe domestic violence and abuse. The hidden face of the problem; a cause unlikely ever to be championed by the establishment.
Whilst 2016’s ground-breaking BBC Radio 4 ‘Archers’ storyline garnered welcome public attention for the cause, the criminal justice system continues to treat these women extremely poorly. This, I believe, ultimately stems from the inherent prejudice in our criminal justice system, which continues to stigmatise women defendants, continues to propagate a false dichotomy between ‘victim’ and ‘offender’, and is a system dominated by a mass of men who simply cannot or do not wish to engage with the suffering experienced by women victims. And I chose the word ‘victim’ carefully, for that is what these women are.
Based on my experience in the last four years of the women who have written to Justice for Women seeking help, it would appear that the problem has worsened.
In the last six months, for example, Justice for Women has taken on two appeals against murder convictions, both exemplifying the devastating capacity of the justice system to utterly fail vulnerable women. In these cases, what shines clear is a failure by the system to identify and explore the salient issues; a failure to ensure the jury was presented with evidence of severe domestic abuse and violence; and as a result a failure to ensure justice prevailed by giving these women a voice.
The first of the two cases is that of Farieissia Martin. In 2014 Farieissia’s violent partner, Kyle, attacked her and attempted to strangle her. In order to defend herself and in fear of her life, Farieissia reached for anything to help stop him. Kyle died as a result of a single stab wound to the heart. At the age of just 22, she was convicted of murder and sentenced to life with a minimum tariff of 13 years and separated from her two young children. No mental health assessment was undertaken, despite significant evidence of depression and trauma, with the result being that the full history of serious domestic violence between them remained unexplored at trial.
The second case involves Emma Magson. As young child, 23-year old Emma watched her father abuse her mother. In 2016 Emma left a relationship with an abusive man whose violent acts had hospitalized her. She then met and fell in love with James, the deceased. Over the months they were together James became increasingly controlling, jealous and physically aggressive. In March 2016, after a night out the couple argued and James became violent, kicking and pushing her and finally putting his hands around her throat. In a moment of terror, Emma reached into the sink behind her and lashed out, stabbing him once. At her trial the court was not informed of the history of abuse she had suffered nor the violence she had seen inflicted on her mother as a child, and no evidence of her significant mental health issues was presented to the jury. She was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, to serve a minimum of 17 years. Emma has a two-year old daughter.
In these cases both juries were left without evidence of the traumatic effects of domestic violence on these two women. Neither woman experienced justice.
Quite frankly it beggars belief that, in 2017, these scenarios continue to arise. As any defence practitioner in the criminal justice system will understand, the need for the jury to be presented with a compelling narrative is essential, but it is acutely and critically important where the charge is of one of murder and the presumption of innocence wanes in the face of a prosecution seeking to present the actions of the woman as cold hearted and callous (as almost every prosecutor invariably does, in my experience).
Sadly, for Emma and Farieissia, their experience of the criminal justice system merely reinforced the reality of their lives: that men dictate the terms of their experience of the world and that their vulnerability is disregarded by those with more power and more influence.
In 2016 I attended a conference on vulnerable defendants run by the Inns of Court College of Advocacy. Whilst it was ground breaking terms of it’s focus and breadth, one group of vulnerable defendants was noticeably absent from the agenda: women who offend as a result of experiencing domestic violence and abuse. This is a remarkable omission given that in almost all cases there is proven and direct causal link between a woman’s offending and her experience of domestic violence and abuse. The bias towards male defendants provides a further example of our inability to confront what wider society deems to be the ‘unpalatable’ aspect of a woman’s experience of violence and abuse.
All of this results in International Women’s Day 2017 meaning very little to women like Emma Magson and Farieissia Martin, who face long stretches of time in prison, away from their young children who will be adults before their mothers are released from prison.
Whilst efforts to enforce and advance the rights of domestic violence victims must of course be commended, I see very little reason to be optimistic when the women most profoundly affected by domestic violence and abuse continue to be marginalised and deprived of a voice by our criminal justice system.
There are windows of hope in an otherwise bleak landscape. For example, the Centre for Women’s Justice, recently founded by Harriet Wistrich of Birnberg Peirce & Partners (also a founder of JfW), is now fully fledged and campaigning extensively to put the issues raised in this article at the forefront of the political and legal agenda. Furthermore, Justice for Women continues to achieve success in representing women who have killed following domestic violence, and at the moment we are involved in several more appeals than the two described above. It is, however, hard work: the majority of the work is pro-bono and the cases involve months if not years of careful preparation.
Ultimately, real change will only be possible when those who control the reigns of power open their minds to the issue and robustly confront this most tragic manifestation of violence and abuse against women. It is therefore my hope that those who read this article will mark International Women’s Day 2017 by reading about the work of Justice for Women, and consider donating either time or money (or both) to a cause that deserves far more attention than it currently receives.
Claire Mawer, 15NBS Chambers