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The Hidden Death Toll of Domestic Abuse

On August 23rd 2017, Kellie Sutton was found unconscious in her home after attempting to take her own life. Just six weeks earlier, police had been called to the house she shared with her three children and partner Steven Gane, after a neighbour had been told by one of the children that her mother was being strangled. Despite Ms Sutton’s visible distress and her reports of the ongoing psychological, physical and verbal abuse she had been subjected to, the officers ‘did not consider coercive control’ and were recorded saying that they did not want to further investigate the incident, as there would be too much paperwork. Three days after she was taken to hospital, Kellie Sutton died [1].


Research conducted by Prof. Sylvia Welby in 2004, found that an estimated one third of female suicides in England and Wales were women who had been victims of domestic abuse [2]. The emotional and psychological impact of abuse is phenomenal; victims often experience low self-worth, anxiety, depression and helplessness, feeling as though there is no escape from their abuser (3). The use of coercive control and threatening behaviour permeates every aspect of a victim’s life – their finances, their social relationships, their family connections, their physical freedom, their ability to seek medical care – and in such cases, the victim is often unable to utilise any means of escape and believes wholeheartedly that suicide is the only way out [3]. It is estimated that every single day in the UK, 30 women who are experiencing/have experienced domestic abuse, attempt to take their own lives [4]. Due to the impact of the pandemic and the cost of living crisis on both the frequency of domestic abuse cases and the availability of support services, it is likely that more people are suffering from domestic abuse and suicidal ideation and are unable to access support [5, 6]. As a result, the recent developments in the case of Kellie Sutton could be incredibly significant in setting a precedent at a time when victims and their families are particularly vulnerable.


In 2018, Steven Gane was convicted of assault and coercive control and given a sentence of four years and three months, however a recent inquest jury has ruled that Kellie was unlawfully killed [1]. The jury found that the abuse perpetrated by Steven Gane was unlawful to the extent that her suicide should be considered a result of ‘unlawful and dangerous act manslaughter’. This inquest signifies a groundbreaking decision in UK law, as whilst similar cases have been considered, a manslaughter charge has only ever been applied to a case of domestic abuse induced suicide in one instance [3]. In 2017, Nicholas Allen pleaded guilty to manslaughter after Justene Reece had taken her own life as a result of his controlling and obsessive behaviour and subsequent relentless stalking and threats [7]. Whilst this ruling is certainly important and could demonstrate changing attitudes within the court, the guilty plea rendered unnecessary the need for thorough discussion of the offence requirements and therefore there remain many questions around the scope of liability in this instance [3]. In order for a manslaughter conviction to be awarded, whether that be on the basis of an unlawful and dangerous act or gross negligence, it must be established that the accused’s behaviour contributed significantly to the victim’s death [3]. It is often clear in domestic abuse induced suicide cases, through the analysis of victim’s diaries, testaments from their friends and family and evidence gathered if a note/text is left, that the psychological turmoil caused by the abuser is directly responsible for the victim’s suicide [3]. For example, on the morning of the 23rd of August, Kellie Sutton had sent Steven Gane a text 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’ [8]. Whilst it appears obvious that it was Gane’s abuse which caused Sutton to take her own life, thus far, the court have been reluctant to impose liability for manslaughter in cases of non physical abuse- as Stannard recognises, ‘if I give someone a slight push and it unexpectedly kills them, that is manslaughter, but if I hound them to their death by a sustained course of psychological and emotional abuse, it is not’ [9].


Increasingly, research is being done into the emotional impact of domestic abuse and how fatalities caused by psychological and emotional abuse can be recognised. For example, organisation AAFDA have suggested that the government should ensure that the investigation of suicides in which there has been a history of domestic abuse should be as thorough as that of domestic homicides [10]. In response to a rising number of high profile domestic abuse related suicides, initiatives such as the Twitter campaign started by Karen Blatchford- who used account ‘we_are_nina’ to begin counting the number of women’s lives lost due to suicide after male violence- are calling for official femicide data to include the lives of those lost in domestic abuse induced suicide [11]. It is already widely acknowledged that statistics around femicide and gender based violence are likely a significant underestimation, and if taking into account the instances of suicide which occur as a result of domestic abuse, femicide rates would certainly be remarkably higher [12]. Professor Jane Monckton-Smith- founder of the #notjustanother campaign- is calling for the numbers of women who have died in cases of domestic abuse related suicides to be collected and included in femicide data, in order to ensure that the fatal consequences of domestic abuse are not underestimated, that the issue is fully understood in order to implement effective preventative measures and that victims and their families receive justice [11].


With the criminalisation and recognition of coercive control in England and Wales in 2015, it is possible that where a coercive control charge is made, the evidence of this abuse could be used to support a manslaughter charge, especially in instances where the police have prior knowledge of the abuse [3]. Furthermore, as coercive control and psychological abuse become increasingly recognised by governments, media and state agencies globally, alongside the work of organisations such as AAFDA, femicide data can begin to more accurately depict the fatal consequences of all forms of abuse through including domestic abuse related suicide in statistics.



References

  1. Channel 4 News, ‘Groundbreaking ruling in UK domestic abuse case’, available at: https://www.channel4.com/news/groundbreaking-ruling-in-uk-domestic-abuse-case

  2. Sylvia Walby, Women and Equality Unit, ‘The Cost of Domestic Violence’, available at: https://eprints.lancs.ac.uk/id/eprint/55255/1/cost_of_dv_report_sept04.pdf

  3. Anne Lodge, The Journal of Criminal Law, ‘Domestic Abuse, Suicide and Liability for Manslaughter: In Pursuit of Justice for Victims’, available at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0022018320940127?icid=int.sj-abstract.similar-articles.2

  4. Hestia, ‘Domestic Abuse and Suicide’, available at: https://www.hestia.org/blog/domestic-abuse-suicide

  5. David Connett, The Guardian, ‘Stalker jailed for manslaughter of former partner who killed herself’, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jul/28/stalker-jailed-manslaughter-former-partner-killed-herself-nicholas-allen-justene-reece

  6. Pete Cooper, BBC News, ‘Kellie Sutton: New inquest finds abuse victim unlawfully killed’, available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-beds-bucks-herts-66132629

  7. John E. Stannard, The Journal of Criminal Law, ‘Sticks, Stones and Words: Emotional Harm and the English Criminal Law’, available at: https://vlex.co.uk/vid/sticks-stones-and-words-874272876

  8. Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse (AAFDA), ‘Suicide After Domestic Abuse’, available at: https://aafda.org.uk/news/suicide-after-domestic-abuse

  9. Yvonne Roberts, The Guardian, ‘Suicide by domestic violence: call to count the hidden toll of women’s lives’, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2022/feb/27/suicide-by-domestic-violence-call-to-count-the-hidden-toll-of-womens-lives



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