Categorized | Case Law, Criminal Justice

Marital coercion

Marital coercion

The special defence of marital coercion has a long history, though 1922 was the last time that the common law defence was used in the UK. Then Mr. Justice Darling in the case of R v Peel (1922) held that the “melancholy doctrine” that a wife can be coerced by her husband into the commission of a crime was still the law of the land whenever husband and wife are jointly indicted of a crime.

This legal doctrine was founded on the assumption that a wife would not dare to contradict her husband. There were many criticisms of the law and calls were made to introduce a Bill to abolish it as it was seen to be out of date. The law needed to be brought into closer accord with the then present-day matrimonial life. The result was the Criminal Justice Act 1925.

Section 47 of that act states that: “Any presumption of law that an offence committed by a wife in the presence of her husband is committed under the coercion of the husband is hereby abolished, but on a charge against a wife for any offence other than treason or murder it shall be a good defence to prove that the offence was committed in the presence of, and under the coercion of, the husband.”

In 1977 the Law Commission recommended that this defence should be abolished altogether. They argued that they did not consider it to be appropriate to modern conditions. Many married women are financially independent from their husbands. It can be used only by a woman married to a man and it is anachronistic to provide a special defence to wives which is not readily available to other women who may be placed in an equally vulnerable position.

It could also be argued that a defence that only applies to women could be seen as sexist. Women are capable of coercing men and do not require greater protection from their spouses than their husbands do from them. And now same sex legislation means that, in its current form, the law on marital coercion would only apply to lesbian couples and not to gay male couples.

At last the defence of marital coercion, unsuccessfully used by Chris Huhne’s former wife Vicky Pryce at her trial last year, is to be abolished. An amendment to the current Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill states:

(1) The defence of marital coercion is abolished.

(2) Accordingly, section 47 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925 (coercion of married woman by husband) is repealed.

Home Office minister Lord Taylor of Holbeach has indicated the government’s support for the amendment and peers are expected to approve the amendment during the bill’s report stage this week. It is intended that abolition of the defence will take effect two months after the bill is passed by parliament. The general defence of duress will not be affected.

And another piece of archaic law will bite the dust.

This post was written by:

- who has written 462 posts on Upper Case – The Anya Legal Journal.

Mike Gribbin is a retired Civil Servant with wide experience, including the drafting and implementation of Parliamentary legislation and regulations. He is the editor of “Criminal Offences Handbook”, a uniquely comprehensive guide to more than one thousand ways to fall foul of UK criminal law. He is Editor of the Upper Case Legal Journal and has been writing blog posts for the past eight years.

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