How The UK’s Domestic Abuse Laws Have Changed Since Sara Thornton Was Freed
“Forgive myself? Not yet” were the words uttered by a vindicated Sara Thornton on the day a judge ruled that the death of her husband was not murder. Yes, she had killed Malcolm Thornton with a knife plunged into his stomach, but 20 years ago this week, on May 30th 1996, she walked free, having been handed down the lesser conviction of manslaughter by Oxford Crown Court.
Sara and Malcolm Thornton began a relationship in 1987. Throughout their 18 months together, the alcoholic ex-policeman subjected both Sara and her ten-year-old daughter Louisa to threats and violence. Sara had reported him to the police five times, and he had been due in court to face a charge of assault against her ten days after the altercation that resulted in his death.
On the night of the killing, Malcolm returned home drunk and threatened to kill Sara and Louisa. Walking into the kitchen and away from the row to calm herself, Sara looked for something to protect herself against her aggressive husband. She found a carving knife and sharpened it before returning to the living room. After listening to repeated threats to kill Sara and her daughter as they slept, she stabbed Malcolm and he later died in hospital.
Sara was found guilty of murder within the year: she appealed the decision on the basis that her defence lawyer had “completely ignored the issue of abused women who respond in self defence”, according to Justice for Women, the organisation that staged a demonstration outside the Court of Appeal in 1991, calling for her to be freed. A great deal of publicity surrounding the case ensued, followed by two appeals being upheld and finally the re-trial in 1996, in which the prosecution accused Sara of being a “pathological liar”. The judge accounted for the fact she was suffering from “battered woman syndrome” and released her; she had already served the equivalent of a manslaughter sentence and the judge explained to her: “I do not think that you represent a continuing danger to the public.”
Two decades on, the language around survivors of domestic abuse has evolved. But what else has been done to protect British women suffering at the hands of an abusive partner?
In 1996, the Family Law Act was passed, making it possible for people suffering domestic abuse to apply for injunctions against the violent partner: as well as restricting abusive partners’ access to the family home, it stipulates that shared children could not be used in threats. Though not always effective - at present, it takes survivors of domestic abuse on average seven attempts to successfully flee a violent or controlling relationship - this law provides legal frameworks to protect women - and it is mostly women who suffer domestic abuse - from the fall-out following a report of domestic violence.
Then, the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 made common assault an immediately arrestable offence. Beforehand, as was the case for Sara, even after discovery by the police, an abuser could remain with their victim pending an arrest warrant.
In 1999, Clare Wood was murdered by her partner who she’d met online, an abusive man with a history of violence against women that she knew nothing about. Thanks in part to a campaign delivered by Joely Carey, then-Editorial Director of Fabulous, a magazine supplement from The News of the World, the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme, also known as Clare’s Law, came into effect in 2014. Carey explains: “Today, if a woman or a third party involved with a vulnerable woman has concerns over that woman’s partner’s behaviour, they can apply for police checks to be made and see if that person has a history of violence against women. Empowering women to make the right choices about their relationship is absolutely the right thing for society to do – as is supporting those women to be able to lead safe lives once they leave their abusive partners.”
Recently there was a Sisters Uncut protest held at City Hall after finding that two out of three women seeking refuge in shelters are being turned away.
This May is the month the Serious Crime Act 2015 comes into effect. Part of this new law criminalises controlling behaviour to carry a sentence of up to five years’ imprisonment for restricting or forcing a partner to do anything against their will. This protects against the pitter-patter of controlling behaviours which tend to precede domestic violence, and gives those in isolated communities, such as those who married under Sharia law, a get-out clause they might not have in their marriage contract. However, in an age of austerity cuts, vital women’s services are in the firing line. In the past 18 months, two out of three women trying to reach a shelter to escape a violent or threatening partner have been turned away. According to Pragna Patel, director of Southall Black Sisters, a domestic violence charity specifically for black and minority ethnic people: “The rise of religious fundamentalism, the retreat of the welfare state, austerity measures and an increasing hostile anti-immigration climate threatens to undermine the hard won gains that have been made. We must remain vigilant and double our efforts to protect women’s rights and women’s services at all costs.”
Statistics abound, but they continue to shock and appall: one in four women in England and Wales will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, and two women are killed every week by abusive partners or ex-partners.
Jess Phillips, the MP who, on International Women’s Day, read out in Parliament the names of every woman killed at the hands of a partner or ex-partner in the past year, tells MAKERS: “Today, you are still more likely to face no charge for acts of domestic and sexual violence than you are to ever be charged, let alone convicted. This, combined with the current assault on victims’ services means some of the past 25 years’ progress is unravelling. While the positive changes to legislation and attitudes are reasons to be cheerful, we must keep our eye on the prize.”
Photo Credit: Williams Justin Williams/PA