Examination of Witness

Criminal Justice Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:10 pm on 14 December 2023.

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Clare Wade KC gave evidence.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Chair, Conservative Party 1922 Committee 2:50, 14 December 2023

Q We will now hear oral evidence from Clare Wade KC, the independent reviewer of domestic homicide sentencing. We have until 3.25 pm for this panel. Can you introduce yourself for the record, please?

Clare Wade:

I am Clare Wade, a criminal barrister specialising in defence. I am a KC. I tend to specialise in domestic homicide, whether that is murder or manslaughter; increasingly, that is my practice. I have specialist experience in defending women in particular who kill their male abusive partners, but I also defend men who have killed their female partners, so I have quite a lot of experience in that. I was appointed as the independent reviewer for domestic homicide sentencing and wrote the domestic homicide sentencing review. I am here to answer any questions about my expertise on that.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

Q Good afternoon, Clare. Thank you for being here today to give evidence, and for the tremendous work you do in this particular space. We have heard your name crop up time and again because of the work you have done, so we do appreciate that. We have seen a few changes to legislation in relation to the sentencing of those responsible for domestic homicide. How does the Bill do more in that space?

Clare Wade:

Clause 24 encapsulates one of the recommendations in the review, building on the secondary legislative proposals to put into law the aggravating factor of killings at the end of a relationship. I have to say that it looks a little odd in the Bill because it is, as it were, stand-alone. The intent behind the policy is to have a coherent legislative policy that addresses all the harms, and addresses the particular harms in these cases. We now have in the secondary legislation the aggravating factor of coercive control as something that has happened in terms of the history of the relationship by a perpetrator towards a victim, and vice versa—it is a mitigating factor as well.

Obviously, these killings nearly always happen within the context or confines of domestic abuse and, in the cases we looked at, we found that there was frequently an escalation in domestic abuse when the victim—in the majority of cases, a woman who is killed by her male partner—wants to leave the relationship. That particular recommendation was made because not only is that a real harm, and that represents the real danger, but the policy underlying the other recommendations is one that places the concept of controlling and coercive behaviour at the forefront of the thinking.

The real harm in terms of coercive control, which the law does not yet recognise, is entrapment. It is not fear, as in being continually afraid, and it is not necessarily physical injury. It is entrapment, which is what prevents people who are being abused from leaving relationships. Putting that into legislation as an aggravating factor that can be taken into account by the courts would make it clear that that is one of the harms, but it would also, I suppose, bring to our consciousness the real harm in domestic abuse.

Of course, we are really only just getting to the stage where we understand what underpins domestic abuse—in my view, it is controlling and coercive behaviour, as I have explained it in the report I wrote.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

Q That is very helpful. In our evidence on Tuesday, Nicole Jacobs, the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, spoke of your report. She welcomed the measures that were included in the Bill, but she went on to say that she lamented those recommendations that had been excluded and believed that your package of recommendations should have been taken as a whole. What do you think the Committee needs to add to the Bill to fully recognise the importance of your work and get this right?

Clare Wade:

Two things, I suppose. It is important to look at the terms of reference that I was given when I was asked to conduct the review. Two issues presented themselves in terms of problem areas, as it were, in the law as it stands. One of them was an issue that had really precipitated the whole campaign. In our sentencing framework for murder, we have various stages by which we attribute the gravity and seriousness of the offence. One of those involves taking a weapon to the scene of a murder with the intention of using it, and then using it in committing the murder. There is a 25-year starting point in relation to that, whereas most domestic murders—and we found this to be the case in the cases we looked at—have a 15-year starting point.

One of the problems identified was: why was there that disparity between people who have taken a knife to the scene and been convicted for doing that, and people who may not have taken a weapon to the scene but have reached out and used a weapon? We found that the real harms in the way in which those offences are committed were nothing to do with taking a knife to the scene—that really was a red herring. The real harms that were being identified by secondary victims—the mothers of the women who had been killed—were things such as overkill. One of the things that struck me when I looked at the cases was something that Julie Devey said, which was: why is it that you can take a knife to the scene, stab somebody once in a single stab wound and face a starting point of 25 years for your minimum term, and you can stab somebody 79 times in their own kitchen with a knife and face a starting point of 15 years?

I was able to discern that one of the harms was something that we have called overkill, which has now been accepted as something that should be legislated on by the Government. However, I concluded on the overall package that the whole issue of taking a knife to the scene, the 25-year starting point and the disparity was a complete red herring, and that the issue of taking a knife to the scene will inevitably lead to anomalies—for example, you might have a man who kills his ex-partner, takes a weapon to the scene and is therefore eligible for a 25-year starting point, but in real terms of culpability it is no different to killing her in the home. The real issue was something else—other sorts of harms that pertained to these murders.

Therefore, the whole 25-year starting point should be disapplied when we are dealing with domestic murders. Nothing is lost by that. That has obviously been rejected, and there is now a further consultation on having a 25-year starting point or a higher starting point, but it is completely otiose in my view if you take into account the real harms that we have successfully identified and that the Government have taken on board. You will reach the same result in coming to the sentence, but you will reach it by identifying the real harms. That is one thing that I would say probably needs to be looked at again.

The other thing is strangulation. We looked at the killings in our sample—and obviously the literature, frontline responders and everything else—and strangulation is a gendered form of killing, in the sense that in all but one of the cases that we looked at in our sample, it was used as a method of killing a female, usually by an abusive male, within a context and a history of controlling and coercive behaviour. So I recommended that strangulation ought to be an aggravating factor, and that has been rejected. The argument, as I understand it, is that it places too much emphasis on the mode of killing, but it does that for a reason because it is a gendered form of killing.

The corollary is that the use of a weapon, which is not a statutory aggravating factor but is often seen as an aggravating factor, should in my view not be an aggravating factor necessarily. Women who kill men who abuse them always use a weapon, because it is not possible for them to commit a murder without doing so. So those two factors concern me. I am with Nicole on that.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

Q That is pretty comprehensive. Can I ask you about clauses 23 and 24 and the aggravating factors in relation to grooming and the end of a relationship? Do those clauses go far enough?

Clare Wade:

I will speak to clause 24 first, if I may. I think it probably does go far enough in terms of that point because it says “connected with” the end of the relationship, and that is sufficiently comprehensive. In terms of grooming, on the face of it, yes, I suppose. I am not sure if there is a definition. I am always perplexed by the lack of a legal definition of grooming. Even in the cases that I do, we all have an understanding of what it is, but I am not sure it is properly defined. I did not see anything, but I might have missed it. When we ask victims, “What do you understand by grooming?”, for example in the cases that we do, they say, “Somebody pretending to be your friend, but not being your friend and using you for sex.” It is not defined anywhere and it is such an important concept.

In many of the sexual offences, particularly historical sexual offences, grooming is now taken into account in directions to juries about consent. They are asked to consider whether consent was true consent, given the background of grooming. It is a massively important concept. It is floating around, but maybe not sufficiently nailed down—I don’t know. But yes—on the face of it, yes.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

Q Clause 30 addresses assessing and managing the risks posed by the coercive behaviour of offenders. It refers to an “intimate or family relationship”. Do you think the wording of that clause is clear enough? We were just talking about clarity around grooming, and I agree with you there. Is the wording of clause 30 and the reference to “intimate or family relationship” too wide? Or do you think it is okay?

Clare Wade:

I would have to consider it further, but I suspect it is probably all right. We are talking about the management of risk factors within that context. I imagine it is probably all right, as you are talking about convicted persons.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

Q I am particularly interested in the “intimate relationship”, because that can take many different forms.

Clare Wade:

“Intimate relationship”, certainly in the work that I do, would mean partner/ex-partner. I will turn that round—do you think that is too narrow?

Clare Wade:

I think it is probably right if we look at some of the definitions elsewhere, certainly in terms of the controlling and coercive behaviour that it brings into the management.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

Q That is helpful; thank you. This is perhaps not your bag, but clauses 11 and 12 address the offence of encouraging and assisting serious self-harm by a victim. Would you hazard a comment on whether those clauses are fit for purpose?

Clare Wade:

I was thinking about that in terms of some of the scenarios that present themselves in domestic abuse situations. As I recall, the mens rea for that is intentional, which means that it is not too broad. However, off the cuff, I would say that it certainly fits in with some of the cases that we see that result in the suicide of people who are trapped in relationships that they cannot escape—for whatever reason: whether a combination of mental health factors or entrapment. Therefore, I would probably support that. I do not know whether it needs to be narrowed down or not, but certainly, for more remote relationships, it is an important legislative provision.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Chair, Conservative Party 1922 Committee

Alex, I will let the Minister ask some questions for now, but there may be a moment to come back to you afterwards.

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

Q I just want to say that I thought that your review was absolutely excellent, and it has contributed in a really profound way to the way we talk about these issues in Government. Following the passage of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, it has been probably the most critical piece of work that has been produced for the benefit of Ministers. I reread it before you came, and I was just so impressed by how comprehensive and detailed it was.

We all know that you are, of course, supportive of the clause 24 provision, which mirrors what you recommended, but I wanted to ask you about some of the things that you have just said. You said in your report that you found that coercive control underpins all domestic abuse. I think that you also made reference to the fact that there is now a consultation happening on minimum sentences in two regards. The first is in relation to whether any killing—any domestic homicide, to use your language—where there has been coercive control should attract a minimum sentence. I think that that goes a bit wider than anything that you put in your review. I will ask you about that first, and then I will go on to the second part.

Clare Wade:

My view about setting minimum sentences in stone is quite strong. I am actually not a fan of minimum terms and starting points because I think that it takes away quite a lot of judicial discretion. Even though they are only starting points, we often get stuck with them. There is an argument that schedule 21 is probably not fit for purpose. As I say in the paper, it is frozen in 2003 and it comes with the problem that there is always this issue of, “Do we add another starting point in?” I think that the 25-year minimum terms has done nothing but cause problems.

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

Q Please correct me if I am wrong, but am I right in saying that that was a response to the Ben Kinsella case in 2008?

Clare Wade:

Yes, it was.

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

Q I worked a bit with Carole Gould; I think that you referred to her when you gave the example of her daughter’s case. Would you also agree that, in a way, it served to obfuscate what we would wish to say about some of these killings, because it creates this artificial distinction with what I think are more like gang-related crimes?

Clare Wade:

Yes, that is one of the problems, I think. There are two issues. First, it creates legal anomalies anyway, because once you delineate a starting point for something like that, you have all sorts of problems about, “When is it taking something to the scene?” and you then have laws saying that taking a knife to the doorstep is taking it to the scene but taking a knife to another room is not taking it to the scene. That just reduces confidence in the law, I think; it just causes anomalies.

Secondly, as it stands, it does not fit with the other sorts of categories of harm within schedule 21 because, as I say in the report, it does not consider the vulnerability of the victim. It has one harm at purpose. That has caused all sorts of issues in terms of an obvious disparity, and we identified that disparity in the review. There is a disparity of six and a half years on average.

So it causes problems, and yes, you are absolutely right: it obfuscates the real issues because, by looking at the cases that we have looked at, looking at the literature and looking at our experience and the experiences of frontline responders and so forth, we know that the real issues are about what is now being identified as overkill or gratuitous excessive violence. The real issues are about, “Why do we not have a proper forensic approach to domestic abuse?” We do not have that. The whole idea of placing controlling and coercive behaviour and the model that I have identified at the forefront of the thinking is to achieve a proper forensic approach. We will not have this woolly attitude and people saying, “That’s not proper abuse,” and basing stuff on myths and so forth.

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

Q I will not use up all the time. I could ask you a lot of questions, but I will ask you a couple on what you were saying about strangulation. You will recall that one area of your report, your conclusions at paragraphs 8.2 and 8.3, was about the “rough sex” manslaughter issue. You looked at more than 100 cases relevant to that, and you were dealing with the starting point. There were two issues really. There was the culpability categorisation that the judge had found in those cases. Am I right in saying that you thought a starting point was appropriate for cases of that nature?

Clare Wade:

First of all, there were only two cases in the actual sample that came within the “rough sex” category: gross negligence manslaughter and unlawful act manslaughter. In one of those cases, culpability was levelled at category C, so around the middle, and in the other at category B, so higher culpability.

I said that those cases should always involve higher culpability, because the risks of some of the behaviour, in particular with strangulation—while that was not apparent in the cases that we looked at—are high. At the moment, the law distinguishes between “obvious” and “high”, and my view is that this is just a legal nicety when you are talking about strangling or choking somebody. All the experts will say—

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

Q It is automatically high risk, and it is not understood that way by judges.

Clare Wade:

No, it is not. The court is always constrained in terms of section 36 applications and referrals. They are always constrained by what evidence was before the sentencing court. There was found to be this distinction between “obvious” and “high”, and I am not sure that can exist.

My view is that we need to look at everything, and look at society as a victim. We need to dismantle the cultural scaffolding that goes with some of this offending, if we are really going to tackle domestic homicide. There is such a resonance with other harms. Even the harm of overkill, which is about obliterating women’s bodies because of anger and the motivation to kill and so forth, is apparent in strangulation. It was very important to look at that.

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

Q I want to ask you one final question. The Ministry of Justice has written to the Sentencing Council about the culpability issue we have just been discussing. The Sentencing Council’s reply was that these cases should always be viewed as high culpability, but we know that they are not always. Are you able to comment on that? I would say that it is a source of tension at the moment.

Clare Wade:

It is a source of tension. The Sentencing Council has also said that the cases are decided on their own facts. I would agree that a real tension is there. In only one of the cases that we looked at did the sentencing judge find that it was high culpability.

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

Q There are a number where they are viewed in the category below: category C.

Clare Wade:

Yes, there was another one that was category C—given that there were two cases, 50% of them were category C.

The review is probably the first document that brings into consideration the current thinking of academics, campaigners, specialists and doctors. There has been a lot of research done, for example, by Dr Cath White on strangulation. It brings it all into play, and we are trying to have a coherent approach. The beauty—if I can call it that—of using the coercive control model, is that it gives us that. As I said before, ultimately we want a proper forensic approach to domestic abuse in criminal law.

My view is that that approach is lacking at the moment, and that is why we struggle. That is why there is seeming injustice, for example, when a minority of women kill their abusive partners. They do not always get justice, as some of the research shows. Only by having that proper forensic approach across the board will we be able to change things. That is important.

The other point is that the Sentencing Council is conducting its own review—I have not seen all the cases it looked at—and what applies to that applies to my review as well: sentencing comments in themselves are an imperfect way of measuring everything that underpins these cases.

Clare Wade:

The victim cannot give evidence. If you are looking at sentencing comments, you are not looking at the evidence in the case. Take the two cases with which we started the review, those of Ellie Gould and, in particular, Poppy Devey Waterhouse—the review was initiated by the campaign on those cases. I was able to look at the prosecution case files and see that some of the factors we were able to identify in looking at the evidence were apparent in those cases.

In one of the cases, there was some stalking; in both cases, the killing happened at the end of the relationship where the victim wanted to leave the relationship; there was a little bit of violence. We found those factors, but they were not necessarily apparent from the sentencing remarks—one had to look at the papers through the coercive control prism to be able to identify them. Looking only at sentencing remarks is an imperfect way of looking at all these cases. That is why I welcome the Law Commission looking at the issue of defences.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

Q I was grateful that you were able to comment on the issues around self-harm. The Bill also covers policing. Do you have a view on the way the Bill treats police-perpetrated domestic abuse issues, the specified offences in relation to gross misconduct, and the requirement of vetting? It may not be your bag.

Clare Wade:

I would obviously welcome that. We have had some very high-profile cases where police officers have committed dreadful offences. Public confidence, particularly the confidence of women, needs to be restored in policing, so I would welcome that transparency.

I suppose there is an underlying cohesion in some of what we say. For example, one of the questions that we wanted to answer in the review is how domestic homicides sit and fit with misogynistic killings of women generally. I hope that by identifying the real harms and placing them at the forefront of the law, we are able to show that. That goes back to some of the things we were saying a moment ago, namely that strangulation is a particular harm. It is pertinent to domestic killings, as we identified in the review, but it is also something that happens in other misogynistic killings of women. It is important to not just be able to isolate domestic killings of women, but have a policy that encompasses the misogyny that underpins some of the awful offences we have seen in the last few years.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

That is very helpful—thank you.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Chair, Conservative Party 1922 Committee

If there are no further questions, I thank the witness on behalf of the Committee. The Committee will meet again at 11.30 am on Thursday 11 January to commence line-by-line consideration of the Bill.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Scott Mann.)

Adjourned till Thursday 11 January at half-past Eleven o’clock.

Written evidence reported to the House

CJB 14 Professor Amy Chandler, School of Health in Social Science, University of Edinburgh

CJB 15 Dr Sarah Chaney, Queen Mary University of London

CJB 16 Dr Hazel Marzetti, suicide and suicide prevention researcher, University of Edinburgh

CJB 17 Centrepoint

CJB 18 Anthony Simons

CJB 19 Aurora New Dawn Ltd

CJB 20 McPin Foundation