Sally Challen’s case is a wake-up call for the courts to finally recognise the true severity of coercive control

Daily Telegraph, Friday 7 June 2019

The long-term impact of domestic abuse is still poorly understood, both by the public and the criminal justice system. For decades, the courts have tended to deal harshly with women who kill their partners, which is why the case of Sally Challen is being hailed as a ground-breaking legal decision.


Mrs Challen was convicted of the murder of her husband Richard at the family home in Surrey in August 2010, and given a life sentence. Earlier this year, her conviction was quashed by the Court of Appeal but she faced a retrial for murder at the beginning of next month. Now, after months of uncertainty, prosecutors have accepted her plea of manslaughter on grounds of diminished responsibility, avoiding the need for a another trial.


It is a victory for her sons, David and James, who have long campaigned for their mother’s release. They say she endured decades of humiliating psychological abuse before she attacked her husband at the former marital home in Claygate.


Mrs Challen, who is 65, has never denied killing her husband and she has already spent almost ten years in prison. But her case is being seen as a test of judicial attitudes to coercive control, a form of emotional abuse that only became a criminal offence in December 2015. The significance of the outcome was underlined by the shadow equalities minister, Carolyn Harris, who described it as a ‘landmark case for victims of coercive control’.


The defence argued that Richard Challen had subjected his wife to decades of psychological abuse, sleeping with other women and visiting brothels. The couple separated in 2009, but Mrs Challen was said to be emotionally dependent on her husband and sought a reconciliation. When she discovered he was seeing another woman, she hit him more than 20 times with a hammer as he ate lunch at the kitchen table. After the killing, she drove 70 miles to Beachy Head in Sussex where she planned to kill herself, but was coaxed back from the cliff edge.


In February, the Appeal Court was presented with fresh evidence, including a psychiatric report that concluded Mrs Challen was suffering from an ‘adjustment disorder’ at the time of the killing. It was told that she had two mental disorders and heard evidence that her condition was likely to have been made worse by her husband’s behaviour.


In an impact statement read to the court, James Challen was clear that the brothers had lost their father and did not seek to justify their mother’s actions. But he insisted that ‘she ‘does not deserve to be punished further’. Following acceptance of her manslaughter plea, Mrs Challen’s was given a sentence of nine years and four months, allowing her to be released on account of the time she has already served.


The hearing at the Old Bailey coincides with publication of a report pointing to a link between domestic abuse and mental illness – and how often it is being missed. The study, which is one of the first to examine the impact of abuse on mental health,  found that women who have been abused by a partner are three times more likely to suffer depression and anxiety. They are also more likely to suffer from other, more severe conditions such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.


The research, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, also suggests that opportunities to spot domestic abuse are being missed by the healthcare system. Only 0.25 per cent of women on the GPs’ lists used in the study reported abuse, even though it’s believed that one in four women will experience it in their lifetime. The failure to identify and record abuse has implications for victims’ mental health but It is also a significant omission in terms of criminal trials, where a defendant’s medical history could provide crucial evidence.


That was the case in Mrs Challen’s appeal, which referred to the change in the law in 2015. For the first time, it was recognised that domestic abuse does not always involve physical harm, acknowledging that other forms of abuse – withholding money, denying access to friends, issuing threats and belittling victims – cause long-term psychological damage. There have been relatively few convictions, suggesting that police and prosecutors are slow to use the new law, but the Challen case is a wake-up call for the criminal justice system.


David Challen said as much as he prepared to leave the Old Bailey with his mother on Friday afternoon. ’Our story has become the landmark case society needs to recognise the true severity of coercive control’, he tweeted. Campaigners hope he is right – and that his family’s nine-year ordeal will lead to greater compassion for other victims of this insidious form of abuse.


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