Is the law fit for purpose?

Women Who Kill, Criminal Law and Domestic Abuse


Rachel M. McPherson


£135, Routledge



Are abused women who kill treated fairly by the criminal justice system? If not, what can be done? Is the law biased against women? This book, edited by a Scottish legal academic, is a well-balanced mix of historical and scientific analysis, and practical guidance. There is a preface by former Victims Commissioner Dame Vera Baird KC, who reviews the progress of legal reform.

In analysing the defences and partial defences to the charge of murder, and considering whether they are fit for purpose for abused victims, the book cites the case of Sally Challen. She killed her husband in 2010 and was convicted of murder. In 2019 the Court of Appeal quashed her conviction and ordered a retrial. However, because the Crown Prosecution Service accepted her guilty plea to manslaughter – and because of time already served – she was freed. At the time of her original trial, there was no legal concept of ‘coercive control’.

Sally Challen’s son, David (centre), with protesters outside the High Court

Sally Challen’s son, David (centre), with protesters outside the High Court

The author argues that the way the legal concepts of self-defence and other partial defences are used can be outdated. Abused women are much more likely to use a weapon to kill than a man. In another case, 16-year-old Emma Humphreys stabbed her abusive, controlling pimp who was trying to rape her. According to the account on the Justice for Women website, Emma was unable to explain why she had killed the man or describe the abuse to police or the male duty solicitor. At trial a successful self-defence argument was considered unlikely, partly as the use of a knife was thought disproportionate. She was convicted of murder. She spent 10 years in prison before the Court of Appeal quashed her conviction.

Over the last decade, eight times as many men killed partners than women. The book argues that the criminal justice system has historically been male-centred. Serious violent crime by women is rare. When a woman kills, she is sometimes assumed to be physically or mentally ill as no other explanation fits the circumstances. It is also argued that the legal concept of self-defence and the associated questions of what is reasonable force, and the legal expectation that a victim must escape a dangerous situation rather than fight, are usually explained by courts in language and terminology that is used by and for men.

The various partial defences are still said to be unfair to women victims of abuse because they do not address likely scenarios. The partial defence of loss of control was introduced to replace the partial defence of provocation, which was criticised as being unfair because it was too restrictive. Loss of control was introduced by section 54 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. The act defines loss of control in a way that requires multiple considerations to be met; a number of listed exceptions can render the defence inapplicable. The concept of Diminished Responsibility under section 2 of the Homicide Act 1957 is a partial defence. But that is dependent on evidence of the existence of a medical condition which is not always present.

Criminal law practitioners will find this book – which also has a section on how practically to represent a client facing a homicide charge, at each stage from detention to trial – relevant and thought-provoking.


David Pickup is a partner at Pickup & Scott Solicitors, Aylesbury