Offence of non-fatal strangulation

Part of Domestic Abuse Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:15 pm on 16th June 2020.

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Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 2:15 pm, 16th June 2020

May I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley for a characteristically forceful argument? At the start, I acknowledge this: non-fatal strangulation is a wicked crime and deeply unpleasant. It is unpleasant for the reasons the hon. Lady set out: it is calculated to degrade and to terrify, and in the course of doing so to ensure that the victim has that profound sense that this could be it—their time could be up. That is why it is such a cruel, offensive and unpleasant crime. I also say by way of preliminary remarks that I am aware of the Centre for Women’s Justice campaign for this new offence of non-fatal strangulation. I wish to put on record my gratitude for their written evidence to the Committee.

I understand the concerns that have prompted the new clauses and I will address them directly. Before doing so, I want to say a little about the existing provisions in the law. In fairness, the hon. Lady did refer to them but there are a couple of points that would assist the Committee if they were teased out a little further.

Several offences can already cover non-fatal strangulation and they range in seriousness from common assault, also known as battery—my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford, a magistrate, will know that well—to attempted murder. Within that spectrum, there remain a number of other offences referred to by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley. Strangulation could also be part of a pattern of behaviour amounting to an offence of controlling or coercive behaviour; I shall come back to that in a moment. There is also assault occasioning actual bodily harm, grievous bodily harm, or section 20 assault, and grievous bodily harm with intent, or section 18 assault.

I want to step back for a moment to consider a non-domestic context, just to make some of this clear. For the sake of argument, suppose there is a queue outside a nightclub and somebody wishes to queue barge. He steps in and decides to grab the victim by the throat, throttle them and push them up against the wall. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley indicated, if that left no marks but the complainant was prepared to make a complaint to the police in the normal way, it is likely that would be charged as a battery. She is right that the charge would have to be laid within six months. It would be heard before the magistrates court—again, she is absolutely right—and would carry a custodial penalty. Even if no mark is left, that assault—it could be a punch on the nose but it could also be strangulation—would be covered in that way.

It is worth emphasising that, if that throttling or that strangulation was carried out in a more extreme way such as to leave marks, it is likely that would cross the threshold of harm which is more than merely transient or trifling. That might sound like rather archaic language, but that is the threshold for ABH. Why is that important? Assault occasioning actual bodily harm is not limited to being tried in the magistrates court; it can be tried on indictment in front of judge and jury and there the sentencing power is a full five years’ custody.

The reason I mention that is because if there is one advantage that has come from these things, it means people are much better able now to gather evidence than they were in the past. It used to be the case that you had to go down to the police station, the force medical examiner had to photograph you and so on. Now, people can get those photographs at the time. The mere fact that two, three, four or five hours later those marks may have gone matters not a jot. If the individual can show that the assault occasioned actual bodily harm, that can lead to trial on indictment and a very serious penalty.

To continue with my example of what happens in the nightclub queue, if the throttling went further and it led to some of the dreadful injuries the hon. Lady referred to—a fractured larynx, tinnitus, neurological injury leading to droop or PTSD—although it is a matter for the independent prosecutor, it is likely that would be charged as grievous bodily harm. If it is grievous bodily harm with intent, because all the surrounding circumstances indicated that that was intended given the harm done, the maximum penalty for that is life imprisonment, and that is an indictable-only matter.

That is the law as it exists at present, and the same legal principles apply in a domestic context as apply in the non-intimate context of a fight in a pub queue. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley made the point: “Well, that’s all terribly interesting, but what about elsewhere in the world?” It is important, while we are mindful of our peers, particularly those in the common law jurisdictions, that we got ahead of the game to a considerable extent with section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015. It is worth taking a moment to consider what that ground-breaking piece of legislation introduced—the coercive control stuff.

We are guilty in this place of sometimes saying, “Right, we’ve passed this. Move on. What’s the next exciting and shiny piece of legislation we can pass?” Section 76 is of enormous import in terms of providing prosecutors—I will come to the hon. Lady’s point in due course about whether prosecutors are doing the right thing—with the tools that they need to protect victims. Section 76 says that if the defendant

“repeatedly or continuously engages in behaviour towards another…that is controlling or coercive”,

at a time when the perpetrator and the victim are personally connected, and the behaviour has a serious effect on the victim and the defendant

“knows or ought to know that the behaviour will have a serious effect” on the victim, that is a criminal offence, punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment.

I wish to dwell on that for a moment, because behaviour is said to have a serious effect within the meaning of that section. It can be proved in two ways. First, if it causes the victim to fear on at least two occasions that violence will be used, or it causes the victim serious alarm or distress, which has a substantial adverse effect on their day-to-day activities. I mention that point because if, as the hon. Lady says, and I am absolutely prepared to accept it, more often than not in an intimate context this is part of a pattern of behaviour—all too often an escalating pattern of behaviour—the tools exist, should the prosecuting authorities seek to use them, to seek the conviction, punishment and disgrace of the perpetrator.

The question then arises of whether police and prosecutors are using the levers available to them. That is a really important point, and it is the central message that I take from the hon. Lady’s speech, which was effectively saying: “I recognise that there are a whole load of statutory provisions here, but why don’t we create a new statutory provision to really focus minds and ensure that this appalling behaviour is prosecuted?” I understand that argument, but we have to ensure that we do not, in that sensible endeavour, risk confusion in the law.

I will say one final thing about the current state of play within the law. There is, as the hon. Lady indicated, a specific offence under section 21 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which makes it an offence to

“attempt to choke, suffocate, or strangle any other person, or…to choke, suffocate, or strangle” a person in an attempt to render that person

“insensible, unconscious, or incapable of resistance” with intent to commit an indictable offence. Typically, that is strangling someone in order to rob them, to steal or whatever it may be. I am aware that there can be some evidential difficulties in prosecuting a section 21 offence, particularly if there is no evidence, or insufficient evidence, of injuries, such as reddening and minor bruising to the skin. However, that sits in a wider context of the legislation that exists. There are other options for prosecutors to fill the gap.

There is a risk too, I respectfully suggest, that creating a new offence could limit the circumstances covered, and create additional evidential burdens when compared with existing offences. In other words, we would potentially have a situation where we created a new offence, and prosecutors said, “Hang on—this look a bit like strangulation to me, so we need to look at this new offence. Do we have all the mental elements—the mens rea and the actus reus of the offence—and can we make them out? If not, we shouldn’t charge,” instead of saying, “Hang on—there are a whole load of offences that we could properly charge: common assault, assault occasioning actual bodily harm, and grievous bodily harm with intent. They might have existed for 150 years, but they do the job.”

The key issue, going back to the point that the hon. Lady raised, is whether police and prosecutors are recognising this as a serious matter, and I will come on to that briefly in a moment. Before I do, though, I wish to say something on the clause as drafted. It is always worth going back to the text. New clause 8 says:

“A person (A) commits an offence if that person unlawfully strangles, suffocates or asphyxiates another person (B), where the strangulation, suffocation or asphyxiation does not result in B’s death.”

Sometimes what is important is what is not said, as opposed to what is said. That on its own, if it suddenly came into law, would be deficient, because it says nothing about whether the offence is triable either way, is indictable only or is summary only. It does not say what the sentence would be. It would be sitting there in splendid isolation. That is not a criticism, but as it is presently drafted, that would be a problem. As I say, that is not a criticism, it is just an observation that we certainly could never pass it in its current form.

I said I would turn to the point about whether this is being taken seriously. Out of respect to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley, I wanted to look this up while she was on her feet. I went to the CPS guidance on this matter and was pleased to see that it has been updated as recently as 28 April 2020. I am reading from “The Domestic Abuse Guidelines for Prosecutors”. It is a long document and I do not propose to summarise it. However, the key messages are, first, that domestic abuse allegations are in and of themselves incredibly serious. Secondly, the mere fact that a complainant might say: “Do you know what, I don’t want to pursue this case any more?”—which happens the entire time—is not a reason for the CPS in the public interest to drop a case because they recognise that that tactic from abusers is as old as the hills. They suddenly become all sweet and nice with a view to trying to obscure their offending behaviour or to pressure the victim into not proceeding with the case. The CPS is alive to that and seeks to prosecute it. Furthermore, it is an aggravating factor within the sentencing regime.

The basic point is that the new clauses are difficult in their own right because of bits that are missing, but while we remain hugely supportive of the instincts which lie behind them, the Government take the view that they risk introducing confusion in the law, which most seriously of all risks disadvantaging the very people we want to protect. For those reasons, I hope the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley will recognise that we take this extremely seriously and that we will always take every opportunity to remind prosecuting authorities, be that the police or CPS, of the importance of such matters. Given that, I hope the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley will be content to withdraw new clauses 8 and 9.