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The potential impact of the Sally Challen case

We wait in anticipation of the outcome of the Court of Appeal decision tomorrow to see if Sally Challen’s conviction is reduced from murder to manslaughter.

In 2010 Sally was sentenced for life with a minimum of 22 years (which was later, on appeal, reduced to 18 years) following hitting her husband, Richard Challen, 20 times over the head with a hammer, which led to his death.

Sally is pleading diminished responsibility on the basis of his controlling and coercive behaviour; a behaviour that became more widely known when the legal system recognised that abuse does not need to be physical it can be psychological too.

In 2015 Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 created a new offence of controlling and coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship. Prior to this, the closest offence was harassment which was difficult to prove in an intimate relationship.

The statute provides that an office is committed by A if:

  • A repeatedly or continuously engages in behaviour towards another person, B, that is controlling or coercive;
  • At the time of the behaviour, A and B are personally connected;
  • The behaviour has a serious effect on B;
  • A knows or ought to know that the behaviour will have a serious effect on B.

Examples given by the children of the parents, in this case, include isolating their mother from her friends and family, controlling who she socialises with, controlling her money, restricting her movement and creating a culture of fear and dependency. This behaviour continued for over 40 years before Sally finally struck her husband.

There has been a lot of domestic abuse awareness on the television in recent weeks and a common question asked is why would you not just leave?

This way of thinking is so frustrating. If it was really that simple to leave then an individual would just leave. I have read the reports that Sally did try to leave and even start divorce proceedings on a number of occasions, but she felt she could not be without Richard and this was most likely part of his controlling behaviour, Sally did not feel like she could live without him, so kept returning, until one day it all got too much.

I have worked with victims of domestic violence for over 10 years, firstly through charity work and in my professional capacity and they often tell me that the emotional/psychological abuse is often more painful than the physical abuse.

This case has the potential to be a landmark case as it will be the first time the court will hear controlling and coercive behaviour being used as a defence in a murder trial. If Sally is successful, I believe not only will we see a rise in such defences being raised, but a greater understanding by the court of the seriousness of psychological abuse.

My view is that the court must accept the impact of this psychological abuse and if Sally can prove this it will be a most welcomed result.

Sarah advises on all areas of family law (divorce/dissolution, cohabitation, domestic violence, children) and has worked with a broad spectrum of clients both nationally and internationally.

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