Marital Coercion – End of an Anachronism?

The government has recently announced the defence of marital coercion is to be abolished; which was so famously, and unsuccessfully, used by MP Chris Huhne's former wife Vicky Pryce at her trial for perverting the course of justice by taking speeding points for him last year. The elements of the defence are that the wife must prove that the offence was committed in the presence of her husband and secondly that it was committed under his coercion. She must prove both to the civil standard of proof, namely the balance of probabilities.

This defence is widely regarded as a relic from a bygone age. There is no relevance for it in the current age of equality. Pryce had argued that she should be exempt from criminal liability for lying about driving her then-husband's car when he was caught speeding. This anachronistic defence had been recognised as such by the Law Commissioner as far back as 1977, who even then had called for it to be abolished.

It is now generally recognised that, in a historical context, a wife doing a husband's bidding is leftover from another age and one totally out of kilter with modern society. This is highlighted by the fact that the defence is only open to a wife in relation to the behaviour of her husband and therefore does not apply to a woman who is cohabiting with a man, or those in civil partnerships. It is interesting to note that under Section 80 of the Police and Criminals Evidence Act 1985 (PACE) a wife cannot be compelled to give evidence against her husband. This provision was later amended to include civil partnerships. This naturally recognised the change in relationships within society, unlike section 47 of the Criminal Justices Act 1925, which provides the statutory defence of marital coercion.

Upon its removal from the statute books what are we left with? Can a woman rely on pressure from another as a defence to a crime? There still remains the defence of duress but this requires a threat of serious violence rather than simple pressure.

Even a reasonable belief that one was married under sharia law was deemed insufficient by the Court of Appeal in 1982, where it was decided the defence of coercion would only operate effectively if one was married under English Law. Therefore such a strict reading of the 1925 Act allows it to create inequality that could be challenged under Article 8 (Right to Privacy) combined with Article 14 (Prohibition Against Discrimination). For these reasons alone such a defence is now out of sync with modern society. As Lord Pannick QC, the leading human rights lawyer, commented upon the announcement of the government's decision to remove the defence; "I welcome the decision to remove an absurd law that should have been abolished a long time ago."

For further information, please contact Tim Norris on 01223 411421 or email at tnorris@woodfines.co.uk

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