Should it ever be defensible to kill your husband?

Proposed reforms in the U.K. would provide a partial defense to victims of domestic abuse accused of killing their partners.

Published July 29, 2008 4:55PM (EDT)

I know you've all been waiting for it, so here you go: Your daily update on the U.K.'s domestic-abuse defenses in murder cases. Or, rather, your 40-year update, since the U.K.'s murder laws haven't been reexamined since hanging was outlawed in 1957.

But today, change is in the works. Proposals being unveiled today by the Ministry of Justice, reported on by the Guardian, would add two new partial defenses: "Killing in response to a fear of serious violence" and "killing in response to words or conduct which caused the defendant to have a justifiable sense of being seriously wronged."

The proposed reforms, says the Guardian, were "triggered by concerns about the different treatment of men and women in cases of domestic violence ... the view that it is too easy for men to say they killed female partners because of infidelity, or the ending of a relationship, while women with abusive partners find it hard to mount a similar partial defense." Along the same lines, the reforms would also create a "more precise definition of diminished responsibility" and abolish a 17th century defense of "provocation" -- thus providing a partial defense to someone who "loses control and kills from a justifiable sense of being seriously wronged by the victim's conduct," but ensuring that this defense "emphatically [would] not be available as a reaction to sexual infidelity," says Vera Baird, the solicitor general.

An article in Monday's Guardian gives a bit more context to these proposed changes -- pointing out, for example, that "at present provocation can be cited only in cases where there is a loss of self-control or sudden loss of temper, for example in the face of an insult. A woman who, after suffering years of abuse by her partner, finally strikes back because she is in fear of further violence may not in law be found to have lost her self-control at that precise moment." Therefore, the logic goes, she wouldn't have the same access to a partial defense as would a man who had killed his wife after finding her in bed with another man. The difference is significant: With the proper partial defense, a charge of murder can be reduced to manslaughter.

It seems strange, at first glance, to think that the goal of these reforms is to provide more defenses for people who have killed their partners. But it does make a bit more sense in the context of the U.K., where there is no distinction, as there is in the United States, between first- and second-degree murder. (Adopting those distinctions was another proposal put forth in this round of reforms, but doesn't seem likely to happen.) Keeping in mind that these reforms would not allow people to get off the hook for killing, but rather would provide a partial defense, what are your thoughts?

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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