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Murder - defences - diminished responsibility and Battered Woman Syndrome

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Battered Woman Syndrome

It is an extremely common social event involving physical and sexual violence by men against women and children. It was medically recognised as a mental disease until 1994. It is not a defence but a means of convincing the court of diminished responsibility or provocation.

What is it?

All syndromes are defined by clusters of symptoms. Battered Woman Syndrome was initially proposed by an American Leonore Walker (1984).

There are two premises: a cycle model of violence and 'learned helplessness'.

Why doesn't the woman leave?

Women have always known that this is often the most dangerous thing to do.  It is professionals who have not understood that fear is one of the most potent reasons why women do not leave violent men.

For every 100 men who kill wives 23 women kill husbands.

Accurate official data on women who kill is difficult to access and incomplete.

Jane Mooney (1994) North London Survey

As many as one in three women experience violence in a heterosexual relationship; many of those fear for their life.

Diminished Responsibility

It can be used as evidence of an 'abnormality in mind' in relation to diminished responsibility.


It can be evidence of the characteristics which can be used to assess the reasonableness of action for the defence of provocation, see Kiranjit Ahluwalia's appeal where it was recognised; although her appeal succeeded on grounds of diminished responsibility.


It diverts attention from the previous behaviour of the man and the case becomes about the woman's personality defects rather than the man's behaviour.

Kiranjit Ahluwalia

Provocation was unsuccessful because the delay between her husband's last attack on her and her retaliation (a few hours) was deemed to be a "cooling down" period and not a "boiling over" period as her defence suggested.

On appeal the expert evidence and psychiatric reports which had not been presented at the original trial were admitted. At re-trial she was found guilty of manslaughter due to diminished responsibility and sentenced to three years and four months (the time she had already served), and so was released immediately.

Emma Humphreys

Her appeal succeeded because the judge at the original trial should have directed the jury to consider the cumulative provocation she suffered at the hands of her boyfriend/pimp. At the original trial, the jury was only directed to consider the final act of provocation.

The second ground concerned provocation. Emma's so called "abnormal personality" and her "attention seeking traits", should have been taken into account when considering the relevant characteristics of the 'reasonable man'.

For three years after her release Emma campaigned for Justice For Women, but continued to battle with anorexia. On the 11th July 1998 Emma died in her sleep after an accidental overdose of prescription medication.

Sara Thornton

Her plea of diminished responsibility focused on her own state of mind rather than the batterings she had received.

Her first appeal failed on the grounds that the 60 seconds it took to get the knife did not constitute "a sudden and temporary loss of self-control". She could have "walked out or gone upstairs".

A further appeal allowed new evidence showing the extent of the domestic violence she had suffered and its impact on her mental state. Taylor LCJ quashed her murder conviction on the grounds that the judge at her original trial had not directed the jury to consider all the relevant characteristics of the "reasonable man" test in provocation and ordered a retrial. At retrial she was found not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter.  The jury did not indicate whether it was on grounds of provocation or diminished responsibility or a combination of both that reduced her conviction from murder to manslaughter. She was immediately released from custody.

R v Hobson [1998] CA

Battered woman syndrome is capable of giving rise to a defence of diminished responsibility.


D had stabbed her abusive and alcoholic partner to death during an argument. At the trial she contended that she had acted in self-defence, and there was a subsidiary issue on provocation. She had been convicted in 1992.

On her appeal heard in 1997, application was made for reception of the evidence of two psychiatrists. They opined that the appellant had been a victim of battered women’s syndrome, a condition not recognised in the standard British classification of mental diseases until 1994, and therefore (it was suggested) a condition not considered by British psychiatrists at the date of the trial as capable of founding a plea of diminished responsibility.


The Crown resisted the reception of this evidence, relying on a report prepared for the appellant before the trial which excluded the possibility of a diminished responsibility defence.


The Court of Appeal ruled that the evidence should be received, and in the light of that decision the Crown did not seek to support the conviction as safe. A retrial was ordered.

Organisations campaigning

See here for more detail on BWS

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