Dealing with domestic abuse: Regular readers of this blog, and indeed regular followers of national news, will be aware of the Sally Challen case.
Mrs Challen killed her husband Richard in 2010, by striking him repeatedly with a hammer. She was subsequently convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum tariff of 22 years. That sentence was reduced on appeal to 18 years.
A further appeal was launched in 2017 and eventually in February last year, the Court of Appeal ordered a retrial. The reason for this was new medical evidence which supported Mrs Challen’s defence of diminished responsibility. The medical expert concluded that she was suffering from an adjustment disorder – an abnormality of the mind that substantially impaired her mental responsibility for her acts – as a result of suffering years of abuse and coercive control at the hands of her husband.
In June Mrs Challen’s guilty plea to manslaughter was accepted and she was sentenced to nine years and four months, with the result that she could walk free from court, due to time served.
It has been reported that last week Mrs Challen took part in a talk about domestic abuse at the Senedd, home of the National Assembly for Wales, in Cardiff with her 32-year-old son, David. In the course of the talk, she said that she believed that schools should educate children on the problem of domestic abuse. This is something that I’m sure I’ve suggested previously.
Dealing with domestic abuse: Relationship courses
I haven’t seen a full transcript of the talk, but the report I’ve seen says that in reply to an audience member’s statement that healthy relationship courses should be taught in the classroom, she said: “I agree, I think it should start in schools.” She went on:
“I don’t know how it could be rolled out, but I think young people need to know what is good behaviour in a relationship and what isn’t.
“And if you try and educate children – I don’t know what age they’d start – then there could be a change.
“One of the problems is we have children who are so used to seeing it in their own family. It’s maybe that courses run in schools can help highlight problems at home for children who take those courses.”
I agree. It has always been clear to me that many perpetrators of domestic abuse simply see what they are doing as a normal part of a relationship – often, as Mrs Challen indicates because they witnessed it themselves when they were growing up. They need to be told that it is not normal – a lesson that they clearly did not get from their own parents, and which therefore must be taught to them in school.
I realise that it is already a requirement that schools should provide children with basic relationships education – the Department for Education has issued statutory guidance for governing bodies, teachers and others. I haven’t studied the guidance, and I certainly have no experience of seeing it used, but I think it only really touches upon the issue of domestic abuse, being more generally concerned with all aspects of relationships, of all types.
Dealing with domestic abuse: Going further
What I think Mrs Challen is proposing goes much further.
We need to teach children what domestic abuse is, what it does, and the possible legal consequences.
As to what it is, we need to be quite graphic (which I understand means that this is mainly for secondary children, rather than primary), in order to make clear the reality. We need to explain what physical violence can be, and how it can start with small things and lead on to very serious violence. We need to explain that it can be of a sexual nature. And we need to explain that it can be mental as well as physical, including coercive control.
As to what it does, we need to explain the consequences: the damage to physical and mental health (including the death of victims), the broken families it causes and the blight upon any children involved.
And as to the legal consequences, it needs to be explained that these can be not just civil but criminal.
In short, we need to attack the scourge of domestic abuse from both ends: by dealing with the consequences (including protecting victims), and by trying to reduce the incidence of abuse in the first place. Education is the key to the latter.
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