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Domestic abuse: innocent until proven guilty?

The Times today carries a report of a domestic murder which caught my eye principally because it happened in Besancon in eastern France. I have had the privilege of working for a top family law firm in Paris, which covered both civil family law and those areas where family law crosses over into the droit penal de la famille. In France there are specific criminal charges that may be brought in relation to crimes by members of a family against other family members. These include violence against a spouse as a consequence of what is described in French as violences conjugales physiques et psychologiques. In France, mental and physical violence by one spouse towards the other is a criminal offence and harsh penalties, including fines and imprisonment, can result if you are found guilty of this. Such a specific area of the criminal law does not exist in England and Wales. We do not have a droit penal de la famille.

Monsieur Jonathan Deval is alleged to have murdered his wife. It appears from the facts so far disclosed, to be a shocking, open and shut case. He doesn’t deny it. He admits to killing his wife, says he panicked and then hid her body, which was found dressed in her running outfit and partially burned in some woods two days after the murder. A text message was sent to the wife’s sister saying she was going for a run, sent presumably by him. He had previously appeared weeping on TV in an appeal to find her. Although he admits to the death, he denies trying to burn her body. The French are fascinated and avidly discussing this case. The wife’s parents have expressed their great sorrow, given their previous closeness to their son-in-law.

On the face of it, he is a cold, calculating murderer who not only killed his wife but then dressed her in a jogging outfit and concocted a story to exonerate himself.

However, what is interesting to me is the reasoning he has released through his lawyers for killing her. He alleges he snapped. He murdered her at long last in response to her repeated violence and abuse of him, mentally and physically.

Could he have been a victim of her domestic abuse? That’s a situation that is not new to family lawyers. Domestic abuse in the home happens both ways as we know from our instructions – but more often than not the perpetrator is male and victim female. This kind of violence, whoever it is done by, occurs behind closed doors. However, domestic abuse against a man is something not usually talked about. Repeated violence by women to men and vice versa is often treated as something to be ashamed of, and so the victims, both men and women, put up with it –  until, sometimes, they become so worn down and desperate they strike out. What is unfortunate is how Mr Deval’s lawyers are being attacked for arguing a defence based on their client’s explanation for the murder. It is a defence to the criminal charge of murder to claim a loss of control caused by the fear of serious violence. Whether this happened in the case of Mr Deval, we will have to wait and see. Contrary to what many think, in French law too an accused person is innocent until their guilt has been fully established.

In February 2016 the Office for National Statistics, released its report on intimate personal violence and domestic abuse. Although the proportion of reported male against female abuse was higher, there were some 600,000 reports of abuse by women against their male partners. Some 2.2 million men have additionally reported experiencing domestic abuse since the age of 16.

So female against male violence happens, and in greater numbers than many would have us think.

When responding to the case of Mr Deval, Marlène Schiappa, the French Minister for Equalities, wrote on Twitter “there is no excuse for someone who kills his wife”:

“I’m not getting into this court case, I’m fighting against the trivialization of domestic violence: enough! The media has a responsibility. There is no excuse for someone who kills his wife! None!”

Would she be saying this if the gender roles in this sorry tale were reversed? Under English law this public tweet whilst proceedings are ongoing might be regarded as a contempt of court. Ms Schiapa’s underlying assumptions, the conclusions she jumps to, are worrying.

This was a gruesome domestic murder and the circumstances must be carefully examined. A defendant, even one now demonstrably a liar after his TV appearance, is entitled to explain his actions. Perhaps new revelations are still to come. Cold-blooded murder usually has its explanations. A lover might surface, or a life insurance policy. But so too might a catalogue of incidents that led to murder as a result of provocation, an attempted cover-up concocted out of the thought he would never be believed. The Minister’s tweet might be clear evidence of the latter point.

Family lawyers very often do see people at their very worst, whether men or women, and little surprises us. Either way, whatever did happen, it is a matter for the court where M. Duval is being tried, not, as is increasingly and sadly common, the Court of Public Opinion.

Benjamin was a solicitor at the firm's London office, specialising in all work relating to family law. He advised people on the practical, legal and financial consequences resulting from the breakdown of relationships.

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  1. Vincent McGovern says:

    Thank you Benjamin for writing an article with accurate use of official statistics. I make no comment about Monsieur Duval or his justification for killing his wife. Unfortunately you’re enlightened take on the subject is a minority one, the force majeur is overwhelmingly men are automatically guilty because of their gender. Facilitation and promotion of false allegations based on gendered service provision is central to the failings throughout the UK family court system. The principal failing is not protecting children’s welfare but rather going with the easy flow of ‘man guilty woman victim’ irrespective of facts or evidence. I hope you continue with your impartial professionalism, too many of your colleagues are lacking in it.

  2. Spike Robinson says:

    Very interesting. On the face of it, similar to the Sally Challen case in the UK. Except she confessed immediately after being first talked down from an immediate suicide attempt, which gives her story more credibility than this guy.
    Still I think it’s a good point of principle and thanks for pointing it out.

  3. Mr T says:

    This article has hit the domestic violence \ abuse argument squarely on the head.

    For as long as I can remember men have been the targets and easy scapegoats for ALL domestic violence.

    If you do ANY research into DV \ DA of any quality you will find exactly what has been discovered here. Women are far more controlling than men. A fact that has been proven time and time again.

    In the current context of controlling & coercive behaviour (apparently a female law) sadly SHOULD gain arguably more prosecutions than men.

    What are the stats? I’d gamble no women have ever been prosecuted under this new law.

    The narrative that its always men NEEDS to change ASAP.

    Public services need training in identifying malignant narcissists and controlling women ASAP.

  4. Spike Robinson says:

    This looks like open and shut murder and no scope for the French “criminal family law” to be invoked against him. On his behalf, perhaps, if his story is true and if he hasn’t taken the law, literally into his own hands. I’m sure this criminal family law doesn’t offer a defence to murder? Maybe mitigation perhaps? He or his lawyers clearly think so.

    I have to say there’s something to be said for a “criminal family law” if it were to apply criminal standards of evidence. Versus what we have in the UK and even more so in Spain, where family law or DV suddenly lowers the standard of proof and evidence, while still delivering some pretty real sanctions on that lower level of proof.

  5. Paul Apreda says:

    Hi Benjamin – I have to confess that I had given up reading and responding to the blog because responding to John’s assertions had become quite tedious. However I am delighted to read your interesting and thoughtful contribution on this very important topic. You raise some insightful points on the treatment of domestic violence and abuse when the victim is male and the perpetrator female. You only need compare these circumstances with the famed Archers storyline about coercive control to see the double standards. Do forgive me for moving off the topic that you’ve raised briefly becaue I want to share the experience that I had yesterday in Bristol with Judge Stephen Wildblood who took part in a superb interactive dramtaisation of the reality of a public law case. In that drama we saw a young couple on a low income struggling to come to terms with the tribulations of a new baby. We saw how the mum lashed out at the dad during arguments and he retaliated against that violence. However the entire intervention by social social services and the Courts were based around protecting the child and the mother from the father’s violence.
    You are right to say that domestic violence is experienced more often by women than men but the 2:1 ratio that the figures now show does not justify the highly gendered response that Women’s Aid and others drive. Now that deaths from prostate cancer have overtaken deaths from breast cancer will we see the entire focus of spending and prevention shift to deal with this greater problem? Of course not –
    and neither should it. Cancer affects men and women – perhaps differently – but in no less a devastating way. The same is true of domestic abuse.
    When it comes to child protection, the facts – from serious case reviews – demonstrate that women are more likely to be culpable for the deaths of children than men.

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