In domestic abuse crackdown, UK law targets 'horrendous' strangling attacks

by Emma Batha | @emmabatha | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 11 January 2021 15:30 GMT

FILE PHOTO: A woman casts a shadow as she walks along an alleyway in central London, Britain October 3, 2016. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

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Law will close a loophole that often lets abusers escape justice for choking attacks, which are often treated as ‘common assault’

By Emma Batha

LONDON, Jan 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Domestic abusers who attack their partners by throttling them could face up to seven years in jail under a new law to make non-fatal strangulation a specific offence in England and Wales, the government confirmed on Monday.

The law will close a loophole that often lets abusers escape justice for choking attacks - which can cause brain damage, strokes and other serious injury - and comes amid fears domestic violence could surge during Britain's third COVID-19 lockdown.

"I've heard too many terrible stories of women being throttled only to see their abusers get off with a slap on the wrist," Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said in a statement.

"This government is going to change the law to make sure the punishment fits this horrendous crime," he added.

Campaigners said a conservative estimate suggested about 20,000 women every year suffer strangulation or attempted strangulation, which often leaves few or no marks and is ignored or treated as "common assault".

Common assault carries a maximum of only six months in jail.

With research suggesting women subjected to non-fatal strangulation are seven times more likely to be murdered than other domestic abuse victims, campaigners said the new law could help save lives.

Domestic abuse survivor Rachel Williams said her ex-husband strangled her on numerous occasions before the violence got even worse.

"The first time was when I was seven months pregnant, and the last time was six weeks before he burst into my place of work with a sawn-off shotgun and shot me," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Williams, who told her story to Buckland in a meeting last Thursday, said her ex-husband had only been charged with common assault for throttling her.

"It's really like a kick in the guts for victims and survivors when it's not treated with the severity it should be," she said. "People do not realise how dangerous it is."

Lawmakers called last week for non-fatal strangulation to be made a separate crime under the Domestic Abuse Bill, but Buckland hopes to add a new offence to a police and sentencing bill next month.

The Centre for Women's Justice said New Zealand had criminalised non-fatal strangulation in 2018, leading to nearly 1,500 prosecutions the following year. That would equate to about 20,000 prosecutions in a country the size of Britain.

"It is time that as a society we stopped normalising and ignoring strangulation," said Nogah Ofer, a solicitor with the legal charity.

Domestic violence has soared during coronavirus lockdowns around the world as women were trapped at home with their abusers.

Announcing the latest restrictions last week, the British government said those at risk were exempt from stay-at-home orders.

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(Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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