Tuesday 29 July 2008

A smackdown for feminism in the courts.

Nice one, Mrs Harman. With her Equalities Officer hat on, the Leader of the House has championed one of the most innovative changes to UK murder law in the past century: it is now slightly less legal for men to kill their partners in anger.

More specifically, a new proposal from Minijust the Ministry of Justice is calling for an end to the hopelessly misogynist provocation defence. This is a defence dating back to the 17th century that can reduce a murder charge to manslaughter if a defendant can claim that he or, in rare cases, she, 'saw red' or was cajoled or insulted into lashing out at zir partner. It's used in cases of infidelity where a partner might be induced to murder an adulterous spouse in a fit of jealousy. It's used by husbands who claim to have been asked to take the bins out so many times that they somehow found their fingers around their partner's throat.

Although the provocation defence is not gendered, Harman was amongst those who bravely acknowledged that it is 'overwhelmingly' used by men. Yes, women too are capable of bullying, assaulting and even murdering their partners, but in 86% of all domestic murders the victim is a the wife or female partner of the male killer.

Quoted in the Guardian today, Vera Baird QC, the solicitor general, said that "The days of sexual jealousy as a defence are over. Exceptionally, someone who loses control and kills from a justifiable sense of being seriously wronged by the victim's conduct will ... have a partial defence. However, unlike the current defence of provocation, this can't be used when ordinary domestic conflicts cause friction and emphatically will not be available as a reaction to sexual infidelity."

Women have historically found themselves treated in a desperately unequal fashion by the British justice system in domestic violence cases, being labelled cold-blooded killers when they murder an abusive partner in fear of their own lives, as in the case of Kiranjit Ahluwalia, who suffered years of torture at the hands of her husband, including having a hot iron held to her face, before finally turning on her abuser in his sleep.

In another welcome move, the same proposal will outline plans for a new partial defence when men or women kill 'in response to a fear of serious violence', without the current requirement for the crime to have been spontaneous. Finally, a recognition that women and men who are seriously abused by their partners turn to murder out of fear, not anger. That spontaneous crimes are committed in fits of rage, but crimes of fear are often premeditated, simply because they have to be. Finally, some acknowledgement that 'just losing it' isn't an excuse for murder, but that years of sustained violence and abuse just might be a bit of one.

Noone is born a cold-blooded killer. I'm certainly not of the school which believes that if you marry a man you'll one day wake up with a knife at your throat or a fist in your stomach. But, just maybe, once we've seen the back of sexist laws from a less civilised age, it'll make it easier for my sisters' generation to enter relationships and friendships with men without fear. These legal amendments are a targeted part of a broader goal to eliminate systems which facilitate domestic violence. It is never okay to lash out at a partner because they're nagging you or shagging another bloke. Violence is not an appropriate reaction to frustration with a partner, let alone murder, and in the society we want to build 'provocation' has no place as a legal excuse. This isn't about misandry. It's not about victimising men. It's about justice.

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