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Marital coercion

The recent Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce trial and subsequent prison sentences, has served to underline the issue of marital coercion.

Is it still a valid defence in 21st century Britain?

The case, well known to many, saw the ex-wife of Huhne fail in her defence of marital coercion as both of them were sentenced to eight months in prison. She was found guilty of perverting the course of justice after the couple allegedly arranged for her to take Huhne’s penalty points for speeding because he had amassed 12 and faced a driving ban.

She unsuccessfully tried to claim that she had been pressurised into doing so by her ex-husband, using the defence of marital coercion.

Marital coercion is a statutory defence to most crimes in English law, coming under the wider banner of duress. It may appear an outdated form of defence, more relevant in times past when women were staying in the home, looking after the children, however it is still used today.

Previous cases

Prior to this high-profile case, the most recent, equally well publicised occasion on which it was used was in the trial of Anne Darwin, the wife of the canoeist John Darwin who faked his own death to claim life insurance to start a new life abroad. She was equally unsuccessful and was convicted for her part in the fraud in 2008.

It did however succeed for Ashley Fitton back further back in 2000 when she used the defence against a drink-drive charge. Though three times over the legal limit, she successfully argued that her husband had ordered her to drive the car and she had been scared of his reaction if she had refused.

For the defence to be successful the woman – and it is always women – has to prove two separate elements.

  1. The offence is committed in the presence of the husband.
  2. The offence was committed under his coercion.

While there are some similarities with marital coercion and duress, the latter would involve the threats made by the husband to be to kill or cause serious injury. Therefore marital coercion has a wider potential use because it stems only from the woman having her will overpowered by that of her husband, so that she has been effectively forced to commit the offence. The implication is that she has no real choice in the matter.

Will it survive as a defence for much longer?

It has been considered to be on borrowed time since the Law Commission in 1977 recommended that it be abolished. That feeling has been exacerbated by the growing feeling that it is outdated and sexist to have a defence that is:

A) Only available to women.

B) Not available to those co-habiting with a man.

While some insist that its focus on marriage and the pressures that institution can place on some women justifies its retention, because it is not available to men nor those who are not married or in a civil partnership, it is a defence that has limited use and effect in today’s society.