Ten years later, Sally Challen’s case shows the justice system is still letting domestic abuse victims down

Ellie Fry

In the final moments of last night's BBC2 documentary The Case of Sally Challen, she stands in a church, warning the camera that she is “going to cry in a minute”. Holding back the tears, it is here where she reflects on what happened to her husband nine years ago, and how she "still misses him". In just 90 minutes, the film explores the complexities of a trial that reshaped our understanding of domestic abuse.

In 2010, Sally Challen was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum of 22 years for killing her husband after suffering decades of domestic abuse. In February this year, she won a landmark appeal that saw her murder conviction reduced to manslaugher. The lesser charge was accepted by prosecutors on the grounds of diminished responsibility after new psychiatric evidence suggested that she was suffering from two mental disorders at the time of the killing. In June, the prosecutors accepted her plea of manslaughter and she walked free, due to time already served.

This unprecedented outcome has paved the way for change to how the criminal justice system treats cases like Challen’s, in which women snap as a response to relentless abuse. Her story has emboldened other women under similar circumstances to fight their convictions. Just last week, Farieissia Martin, who was sentenced to life in prison for fatally stabbing her former partner in 2015, was granted the right to appeal against her murder conviction, on similar grounds of fresh medical evidence relating to her mental state at the time of the killing. Today, Emma-Jayne Magson will hope for a similar verdict when appealing against her 2016 murder conviction, arguing that her autism and borderline personality disorder were overlooked during her trial.

But this monumental shift didn’t happen without tireless campaigning. Monday night’s documentary followed Challen’s friends, family and legal team as they fought for legal recognition of the history of abuse she endured. The appeal reshaped our understanding of the part that Challen’s suffering had to play in her actions on that fateful day 10 years ago; something that was given little consideration during the original trial. It unpicked the nuances of the case with forensic detail, with the help of Challen’s solicitor and award-winning human rights lawyer, Harriet Wistrich. Alongside the team at Justice For Women, a feminist organisation which specialises in advocacy for victims of domestic abuse who kill, Wistrich considers the facts through the lens of coercive control, a form of domestic abuse that wasn’t recognised in law until 2015, five years after Challen was sentenced for murder.

Coercive control relies on eroding a person's self-esteem through constant humiliation, intimidation, punishment and other abusive assertions of power, in order to make the victim isolated and dependent on their perpetrator. It can often mean controlling a victim’s daily routine while depriving them of their most basic needs, such as food and money.

According to Professor Evan Stark, who invented the term, it is akin to being taken hostage. In a conversation with her legal team shown in the documentary, Stark explains how years of abuse influenced Challen’s actions: “He really exploited her. He took her money, he raped her, he did things to her that dehumanised her, that turned her into a kind of person who is not able to make rational, ethical choices.”

How then, during a trial, could we expect a woman like Challen to understand and then convey the toll of the abuse they have suffered, especially when it is all they have known? Her relationship with Richard Challen began when she was just 15 and he was 22. The jury heard none of his abusive behaviour, yet the onus is on women like Challen to be convincing at a time when chronic psychological manipulation has driven them to breaking point.

Footage from the Court of Appeal gave valuable insight into the complexities of Challen's case. The judge makes the important distinction that coercive control cannot be used as a defence for murder, but it can provide vital context in cases of this kind. Sally's son, David Challen, conveys this eloquently: "It's not a justification for the events that have happened, it's an understanding."

It is a burning injustice that it took until 2015 to recognise a type of abuse that has devastated the lives of women throughout history, but it is sadly emblematic of how domestic abuse is seen, or rather not seen, by our criminal justice system and government. Funding cuts for research into violence against women and services that support victims of domestic abuse cannot be separated from this failure to acknowledge coercive control in the courts.

Former police chief superintendent John Sutherland told Newsnight last week that he regards “domestic violence as terrorism on an epic scale”, yet it is clear that not enough is being done to combat what he deems “a disease of pandemic proportions.” Domestic abuse has risen by 24 per cent in a year, while referrals of cases from the police to the Crown Prosecution Service fell by 11 per cent. The highly anticipated Domestic Abuse bill, a piece of legislation that aims to define domestic abuse for the first time in British law, has been halted once again due to the upcoming general election.

It’s promising to see the ripple effect of Challen’s appeal – providing a glimmer of hope for women convicted under similar circumstances – helped by both Justice for Women and the Challen family. But it is maddening that this outcome took years of campaigning, and without nuanced laws in place and a government that fully funds support and prevention, more women like Challen will suffer.

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