UK Court Rules Suicide of Domestic Violence Victim an ‘Unlawful Killing’

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Domestic control

A Coroner’s Court in the United Kingdom has determined that a woman who took her own life after domestic abuse, was ‘unlawfully killed.’ 

A previous inquest ruled the cause of Kellie Sutton’s death was suicide, after she was found unconscious after hanging herself in the home she shared with her partner, Steven Gane.  

She died three days later. 

The new finding by the Cambridgeshire Coroner’s Office overturns the earlier determination of suicide, which is believed to be the first time an inquest has returned a conclusion of unlawful killing after a self-inflicted death.

Ruling of unlawful killing 

The decision was made on the basis that the coercive and controlling conduct to which Kellie Sutton was subjected was an ‘unlawful act’ which subsequently caused her to take her own life, amounting to unlawful killing.

Evidence presented to both inquests included that Mr Gane’s abuse included smashing Kellie’s head against a table and that Ms Sutton sent a text to Gane shortly before he found her dead saying: “Hope you feel bad, for this is your fault, you told me to do everyone a favour, so that’s what I shall do.Hope your life’s better without me.”

Steven Gane is already serving four years behind bars after being found guilty of controlling and coercive behaviour, assault occasioning actual bodily harm and assault by beating, Crown Prosecutors (the equivalent of the DPP) now have the opportunity to re-examine the case and determine whether to lay additional charges. 

In the UK a coroner’s Court does have a jury. The jury also made a finding that failures by Police may have contributed to Ms Sutton’s death. 

Despite visiting the home after being called by neighbors in the weeks prior to her death, police officers did not consider the possibility of ‘coercive control,’ despite laws being introduced in 2015, to protect domestic abuse victims. 

The inquest determined that had police undertaken further investigation or action, Kellie Sutton may not have died. 

Cocercive control and domestic violence 

New South Wales introduced a criminal offence relating to situations of coercive control last year, after studies showed that it is prevalent in 99% of domestic abuse situations and, if addressed, could save many victims from further abuse or even death. 

In the UK similar laws were introduced with significant training for ‘first responders’ – police, emergency department, and emergency refuge workers and paramedics to recognise signs of coercive control which includes such things as:  psychological abuse, controlling and harassing behaviours including stipulating financial limits, repeated communications and restricting social connections to deny their partners’ autonomy and independence.

However, in practice, these signs are not always easy to spot, sometimes even for victims. However, when they are present, they are typically a red flag pointing to other types of abuse. They can also be an indicator that abuse will escalate. 

The challenge for courts is to ensure that there is adequate standard of proof to ensure that these laws are not used maliciously. 

The UK Coroner’s decision is being seen as a significant and positive change in the way we’re beginning to understand and address the issue of domestic violence, which is increasing across the globe. 

What is Coercive Control in New South Wales? 

The new offence criminalising coercive control is titled ‘abusive behaviour towards current or former intimate partners, and is contained in section 54D of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW).

The offence carries a maximum penalty of 7 years in prison.

To establish the offence, the prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt that:

  1. You were at least 18 years of age,
  2. You engaged in a course of conduct against another person (‘the complainant’),
  3. Your course of conduct consisted of abusive behaviour against the complainant,
  4. You and the complainant were or are intimate partners,
  5. You intended by your course of conduct to coerce or control the complainant, and
  6. A reasonable person would consider that your course of conduct would be likely, in all of the circumstances, to have caused any or all of the following, whether or not the fear or impact was in fact caused:
  • Fear that violence would be used against the complainant or another person, or
  • A serious adverse impact on the capacity of the complainant to engage in some or all of his or her ordinary day-to-day activities.

‘Abusive behaviour’ as that which consists of or involves:

  1. Violence or threats against, or intimidation of, the complainant, or
  2. Coercion or control of the complainant.

Abusive behaviour may include that which:

  • Causes harm to a child if a person fails to comply with demands made of them,
  • Causes harm to the complainant, or another adult, if the complainant fails to comply with demands made of the person,
  • Is economically or financially abusive to the complainant,
  • Shames, degrades or humiliates the complainant,
  • Directly or indirectly harasses the complainant, or monitors or tracks his or her activities, communications or movements, whether by physically following the complainant, using technology or in another way,
  • Damages or destroys the complainant’s property,
  • Causes injury or death to an animal, or otherwise makes use of an animal to threaten the complainant, or
  • Deprives the complainant of his or her liberty, restricts his or her liberty or otherwise unreasonably controls or regulates his or her day-to-day activities, and
  • Prevents the complainant from doing any of the following ,or otherwise isolating him or her from:

(i) making or keeping connections with his or her family, friends or culture

(ii) participating in his or her cultural or spiritual ceremonies or practices, or

(iii) expressing his or her cultural identity.

In relation to economic or financial abuse, such abusive behaviour includes:

  • Withholding financial support necessary for meeting the reasonable living expenses of the complainant, or another person living with or dependent on the complainant, in circumstances where the complainant is dependent on the financial support to meet his or her living expenses.
  • Preventing, or unreasonably restricting or regulating, the complainant seeking or keeping employment or having access to or control of his or her income or financial assets, including financial assets held jointly with another person.

In relation to deprivation of liberty, the definition includes:

  • Making unreasonable demands about how the complainant exercises his or her personal, social or sexual autonomy and making threats of negative consequences for failing to comply with the demands.
  • Denying the complainant access to basic necessities including food, clothing or sleep.
  • Withholding necessary medical or other care, support, aids, equipment or essential support services from the complainant or compelling him or her to take medication or undertake medical procedures.

A ‘course of conduct’ is defined as behaviour engaged in repeatedly and/or continuously.

Such conduct does not have to be a series of unbroken incidents, nor do the events need to have occurred in immediate succession.

It can include conduct within New South Wales as well as that which occurs within the state and another Australian jurisdiction.

An ‘intimate partner’ is someone who has been or is:

  • Married to the complainant,
  • A de facto partner of the complainant, or
  • In an intimate personal relationship with the complainant, whether or not this was or is sexual in nature.

Legal defences 

In addition to bearing the legal onus of proving each of the five elements (ingredients) of the charge that are listed above, the prosecution bears the legal onus of disproving to the same legal standard any legal defence raised upon the evidence.

Legal defences to a charge of abusive behaviour towards a current or former partner include self-defence, duress and necessity.

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Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist, and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team. Sonia is the winner of the Mondaq Thought Leadership Awards, Spring 2022.

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