Domestic Abuse Commissioner welcomes commitment to sentencing reform to provide more robust response to domestic homicides

The Domestic Abuse Commissioner for England and Wales welcomes the publication of the government’s response to the Domestic Homicide Sentencing Review conducted by Claire Wade KC. This was commissioned by the government following extensive campaigning from the domestic abuse sector, as well as calls from the Domestic Abuse Commissioner and the former Victims’ Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird KC. The Review was a seminal piece of work which highlighted a range of issues existent with how domestic murders involving domestic abuse are approached by the court – particularly with regard to sentencing.

The Domestic Abuse Commissioner is pleased to see that the government has accepted the Review’s recommendations to amend schedule 21 of the Sentencing Act 2021 to make coercive and controlling behaviour, murders which take place at the end of a relationship and overkill statutory aggravating factors in murders involving domestic abuse.

These measures will ensure that the circumstances surrounding domestic murders are given adequate weight when being considered in sentencing and ensure perpetrators face necessary repercussions for their actions. Equally, the Commissioner is pleased to see that victims who kill their partners following prolonged campaigns of coercive control will be afforded better protections through making experiencing coercive control a statutory mitigating factor.

Additionally, the Commissioner welcomes the announcement that there will be a review of defences to murders involving domestic abuse and hopes to work closely with the Law Commission on this issue.

The Commissioner is disappointed however, to see that the government has rejected the recommendation to remove use of a weapon as a statutory aggravating factor. This recommendation was put forward to protect victimised women, who are more likely to use weapons against their abusers and to reject this recommendation goes against the spirit of the review – particularly given the vast evidence to support this change.

The Government’s response highlights that making the recommended changes set out in the review to the manslaughter sentencing guidelines, including controlling and coercive behaviour and sexual motivation increasing the culpability of an offence, falls to the discretion of the Sentencing Council. The Commissioner invites the Sentencing Council to urgently consider the recommendations in the review around amending the Sentencing Guidelines to regularise and mirror the position between murder and manslaughter to ensure wholesale protections for victims and survivors.

The Wade Review sets out a robust set of measures to improve the overarching response to domestic abuse through establishing a model through which coercive and controlling behaviour must be assessed by the courts. It is disappointing to see that the application of this model has not been accepted by the government and I would urge them to reconsider this. The purpose of this model is to prevent coercive control from being overlooked in the context of intimate partner killings, with the Wade Review finding that there is a disconnect between the substantive changes brought about by the law to criminalise coercive control and the sentencing framework which is used when it exists within domestic murders.

A study by Solace Women’s Aid found that 95% of domestic abuse victims had experienced coercive control, with growing academic literature finding that it is an insidious form abuse which bears the most risk to the lives of victims. With this in mind, it is crucial to adopt a domestic abuse framework which centres coercive control and empowers judges and lawyers to have a more robust understanding of this pattern of behaviour .

The Wade Review makes the welcome recommendation that a specific system for the collection of data relating to domestic homicides be established by the government in conjunction with the Domestic Abuse Commissioner’s office. The Domestic Abuse Commissioner is committed to improving the criminal justice response to domestic homicide and has been working closely with the Home Office to implement the first recommendation in the Review to set up a repository of Domestic Homicide Reviews and share key learnings from these with statutory agencies across England and Wales.

The Commissioner looks forward to continuing to work with the government on the implementation of the measures in the review and the consultations which have been announced regarding changes to sentencing.