Offence of non-fatal strangulation

Part of Domestic Abuse Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 16th June 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office) 2:00 pm, 16th June 2020

I apologise at the outset, because the new clause contains rather technical legalese and quite graphic language. The purpose of the new clauses is to correct the inadequate way in which the law is applied in practice on the ground. Currently, we do not criminalise behaviour that was not already criminal—obviously, it is already a crime to strangle somebody; I can confirm that in case anyone was worried that it is not. The new clauses address a systemic problem that is highly gendered, as I will demonstrate, and if the Bill presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a law work for domestic abuse victims and survivors, this can make a real contribution.

It is worth mentioning that exactly the same debate has taken place in the United States, Australia and New Zealand, all of which—most recently New Zealand, in 2018—have introduced specific laws on non-fatal strangulation. I will discuss that in more detail later. Before speaking to the new clauses in greater detail, it is important to establish that what I am talking about is completely distinct from the rough sex defence dealt with in new clauses 4 and 5, which also include asphyxiation. I am talking about strangulation in the context of physical domestic violence rather than strangulation during sex. New clauses 4 and 5 deal with consent issues relating to injuries inflicted during sex. There is of course some overlap, which I will address briefly at the end of my speech.

Strangulation and asphyxiation are the second most common method of killing in female homicides after stabbing. Some 29% of female homicides in 2018— 43 women—were killed by that method, compared with only 3% of male homicides. However, the important thing to note about non-fatal strangulation is that it is generally not a failed homicide attempt, but a tool used to exert power and control and to instil fear within an abusive relationship. That has been explored in academic literature and in detailed interviews with survivors. Strangulation sends the message, “If you do not comply, this is how easily I can kill you.” Researchers have observed that many abusers strangle not to kil, but to show that they can kill, using strangulation as a tool of coercion, often accompanied by death threats. The result is compliance and passivity by the victim in the relationship in the longer term. It is worth noting that I have very rarely come across a victim of domestic violence who has not been strangled as part of their abuse.

It is widely recognised that non-fatal strangulation and asphyxiation, such as suffocation with a pillow, are a common feature of domestic abuse and a well known risk indicator. The standard risk assessment tool used by police and domestic abuse services, which is called the DASH—domestic abuse, stalking and harassment—checklist, includes a question about attempts to strangle, choke, suffocate or drown the victim. The questions in the DASH checklist were identified through extensive research on factors associated with serious domestic violence and homicide. Researchers found that a history of strangulation presents an eightfold increase in the risk of death.

Although there can often be a lack of visible injury, it is important to recognise the very serious medical consequences of strangulation, which are not immediately visible. Many of the medical effects would come as a surprise to most members of the public, including survivors of domestic abuse, who may not realise the true dangers. Strangulation or suffocation result in the blocking the flow of oxygen to the brain by preventing the person from breathing, and the flow of blood if the neck is physically constricted. Loss of consciousness can occur in 10 to 15 seconds and a lack of oxygen to the brain results in mild brain damage. Studies show that between 8.9% and 39% of those who are strangled lose consciousness.

Although there may be little or no visible injury, numerous long-term medical effects of strangulation are reported, many of them neurological problems. They include a fractured trachea or larynx, internal bleeding, dizziness, nausea, tinnitus, ear-bleeding, raspy voice, neurological injuries such as facial or eyelid droop, loss of memory, and even stroke several minutes later as a result of blood clots; there is also increased risk of miscarriage. In addition to the longer term physical impacts, reports describe strangulation as extremely painful, and the inability to breathe is obviously very frightening. It is described in one report as “primal fear”. Anybody who has not been able to breathe, for whatever reason, understands that fear and the control over you that it will have.

Not surprisingly, strangulation has been found to result in long-term mental health impacts. Post-traumatic stress disorder is closely linked to experiencing fear of imminent death. Four studies report the victim’s sense of existential threat—a firm conviction that they were going to die. Recent research included interviews with 204 woman attending an NHS sexual assault referral centre in Manchester who reported that they had been strangled. In response to open questions about how they felt, a high proportion stated that they thought they were going to die. Of those 204 women, 86, or 42%, had been assaulted by a partner or ex-partner. The others had been sexually assaulted by someone with whom they were not in a relationship, such as a first date, an acquaintance or a stranger. A survey of 13 studies of delayed psychological outcomes identifies depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, nightmares, PTSD, dissociation and the exacerbation of existing mental health difficulties. Obviously, many of the women experiencing non-fatal strangulation were also experiencing other forms of domestic abuse, but the clear message is that strangulation certainly contributes to the psychological trauma.

Reports on prevalence of strangulation within intimate partner violence describes a hidden epidemic. A range of studies indicates that though the lifetime incidence of strangulation is between 3% and 9.7% in the adult population, that rises to 50% and 68% for victims of recurrent domestic abuse. Two studies of intimate partner violence and sexual assault where medical examinations took place found that strangulation was involved in 20% to 23% of cases respectively. Those figures vary, but one message is clear: non-fatal strangulation is widespread and a common feature of domestic abuse, not some kind of aberration.

Reports from frontline domestic abuse workers in England and Wales demonstrate a number of issues. There is a chronic undercharging and a failure by both police and prosecutors to appreciate the severity of non-fatal strangulation. That was also found in comparative studies in the United States and New Zealand. The seriousness of strangulation as a domestic abuse risk indicator is often missed. A separate category of offence would emphasise the importance of non-fatal strangulation when risk assessments are carried out by the police.

Strangulation is generally prosecuted as an assault. There may be a red mark or no physical signs at all, even after a serious assault, and the lack of observable injuries often means that offenders’ conduct is minimised, so that they are charged with common assault rather than with actual bodily harm. As Members will no doubt be aware, common assault is a summary offence, which can only be tried in the magistrates court, whereas ABH is a more serious either-way offence, which can be tried either in the magistrates or the in Crown court. All summary offences must be charged within six months—and that puts further pressure on a victim in this circumstance to deal with the issue in a certain time frame.

The Crown Prosecution Service guidance for prosecutors on offences against the person states that, when deciding whether to charge with common assault or ABH,

“Whilst the level of charge will usually be indicated by the injuries sustained, ABH may be appropriate”,

where the circumstances in which the assault took place are more serious, such as repeated threats or assaults on the same complainant, or significant violence—for example,

“by strangulation or repeated or prolonged ducking in a bath, particularly where it results in momentary unconsciousness”.

I added my own emphasis, by the way—that is not the emphasis in the CPS guidance. The guidance therefore indicates that non-fatal strangulation and suffocation offences would result in a charge of ABH rather than of common assault. However, that is not what happens in practice in a great many cases.

The Centre for Women’s Justice carries out training for local domestic abuse services around England and Wales. Over the past two years they have trained more than 32 organisations at 24 training days in London, the midlands, the north-east and north-west of England, the north and south of Wales, and the south-east. Their training includes the CPS guidance I have quoted. They state that in most if not all training sessions, domestic abuse support workers report that where cases involving strangulation are charged, this is generally as common assault. They say that they hear this consistently from support workers across the country, and therefore believe this to be a systemic issue rather than local, isolated failings.

They also interviewed the deputy district judge in the magistrates court who sits as a recorder in the Crown court and who reported that undercharging of strangulation incidents appears to be extremely common. She stated that a significant number of domestic abuse cases before the magistrates court that include some element of non-fatal strangulation are charged as a summary offence of common assault, instead of the more appropriate offence of ABH. This information is obviously anecdotal, but may not come as much of a surprise to those who work on domestic abuse cases within the criminal justice system. Undercharging has been identified as a problem in the US, Australia and New Zealand. It is an inherent problem, given that strangulation often results in no visible injuries or just a red mark, and police officers are usually focused on the severity of physical injuries when they deal with assault cases. It is a very unusual type of assault, in that serious violence does not result in the level of injury that can be seen and measured easily.

There is currently no distinct offence of non-fatal strangulation or asphyxiation. Section 21 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 contains an offence of attempting to choke, suffocate or strangle in order to commit an indictable offence. Therefore, this only applies when the strangulation is done in order to commit some other serious offence. For example, the Centre for Women’s Justice was told of a case in which a woman was raped and then strangled; she was told by the CPS that the section 21 offence could have been used if he had strangled her before he had raped her, as a pattern in order to rape her, but that this offence could not be used because the rape and strangulation took place in the wrong order. This is obviously ridiculous. The 2015 Law Commission report on the Offences Against the Person Act concluded that this offence was needlessly specific and should be abolished.

It is usually difficult to prove intent for an offence of attempted murder; as noted earlier, the intention is often to frighten and coerce rather than to kill, so a charge of attempted murder is not an option. Therefore, assault is generally the only option for the prosecution, either common assault or ABH.

In a very large number of cases of strangulation, suspects are not charged at all because the six-month deadline for summary offences such as common assault charges has passed. That time limit does not apply to either-way offences. When strangulation is treated as common assault rather than ABH, cases are closed by the police because the deadline has passed without referral to the CPS. If it were dealt with as an either-way offence, that would not be done, and those cases would be sent to the CPS. Police have the power to charge summary offences without a charging decision from the CPS under the director’s guidance on charging. We do not know whether in practice officers obtain input from the CPS in most of these cases.

Frontline support workers report that police officers tend to focus primarily on physical injuries when assessing domestic abuse situations. Strangulation and asphyxiation leave minimal injury, and are therefore easily dismissed as minor and relatively inoffensive. Even when cases are referred to the CPS, prosecutors are also responsible for undercharging and for undercharged cases proceeding to trial. A new offence of non-fatal strangulation must be an either-way offence rather than a summary offence, both to reflect the severity of the conduct involved and to remove time restrictions. That offence could be included in the Bill, along with a maximum sentence, if new clause 9 were added.

There are numerous side effects flowing from undercharging strangulation as common assault. Not only does the offence charged fail to reflect the gravity of the offending behaviour, but the sentencing options and potential for a custodial sentence are limited due to the initial charging decision. In addition, a summary offence deprives the victim and the defendant of the potential to benefit from the greater resources and attention devoted to the Crown court prosecution. Because the accused has an automatic right of appeal following a summary trial in the magistrates court, the victim may have to undergo the trauma of giving evidence a second time in the Crown court. That automatic right of appeal does not exist in the Crown court.

Finally, a summary conviction is inevitably given less weight than a conviction for ABH in future risk assessments and public protection decisions, including future bail applications, sentencing decisions—including dangerousness determinations—and Parole Board decisions. The underlying facts of offences are not always available when such decisions are made, and the information available to decision makers is just a list of previous convictions. A summary offence has a relatively low place in the hierarchy of criminal offending and is less likely to be fully explored. This ripple effect throughout the criminal justice system has a long-term impact on public protection, with a disproportionate impact on women. It can also affect the evidence before the family courts and decisions on contact arrangements, which are intended to prioritise the welfare and safety of children.

A separate offence of non-fatal strangulation will also help the police to identify this critical risk factor in the overall response to domestic abuse. Current risk assessments follow the DASH system, which involves 27 questions, with one asking whether the victim or assailant has ever tried to strangle, suffocate, choke or drown someone. A positive response results in one tick on a form, with 14 ticks required for an assessment of being at high risk. It is important to point out that, in the vast majority of local authority areas and in the vast majority of situations, only those who are considered the most high risk will get, for example, access to an independent domestic violence adviser. If someone has been strangled, they get one tick of a possible 14.

I have seen people who have been smashed in the face with a brick that morning and then been assessed as being at low to medium risk. Although there is room for professional judgment, domestic abuse workers report that many risk assessments by police officers are formulaic. Strangulation is treated as a single tick on a checklist, not as a red flag, as it should be, and does not usually result in a separate criminal investigation. It is just as part of the background history, assuming that the particular call-out that triggered a risk assessment was not a strangulation incident in itself. Creating a more serious offence should make this significant risk factor stand out in the assessment process, resulting in better protection. This is a real opportunity to save women’s lives.

It is well known that, on average, two women a week are killed by their partner or ex-partner. This was illustrated by the 2019 coroner’s report following the inquest into the death of Anne-Marie Neild. Anne-Marie died during a sustained assault by her partner, who had previously subjected her to non-fatal strangulation. Officers who dealt with the previous incidences failed to appreciate the significance of the strangulation as a risk factor, and graded the risk as standard, rather than high. No support was offered to her and she was not referred to a multi-agency panel. The coroner expressed concern that, at the time of the inquest, two and a half years later, there was still no reference to non-fatal strangulation in the police force’s domestic abuse policy, and that there was a lack of understanding of the issue among the officers involved.

Cases such as Anne-Marie’s have forced other countries to implement legislation recognising non-fatal strangulation as a separate stand-alone offence. In the US, 37 states introduced non-fatal strangulation offences; in Australia, the state of Queensland introduced the offence in 2016, with other states due to follow; and a new offence came into force in New Zealand in December 2018. If we pass over this opportunity to introduce a similar offence in the UK, we will be behind the majority of the rest of the English-speaking world on domestic abuse protection.

The UK has been rightly proud of its leading role on the world stage on gender-based violence over many years—for example, as far back as William Hague’s work on preventing sexual violence in conflict under David Cameron’s Government, which I believe was done through the Department for International Development, God rest it. It would be a great shame if we cannot extend basic protections for our citizens suffering serious domestic violence as other, similar countries have done. Creating a free-standing offence of strangulation or asphyxiation will require police to treat such cases with the gravity they deserve and to refer all cases to the CPS for charging decisions, and it will send a signal to the police and prosecutors about the seriousness of this form of offending, with training around the links between strangulation, asphyxiation, domestic abuse and homicide.

New clause 9 would address the situation that frontline domestic abuse workers report on the ground and would be a very welcome tool in the armoury against physical domestic violence.