Sunday 24 February 2013

Thoughts on the "marital coercion" defence in modern Britain

We are probably by now all aware of the trial that ended last week with the jury discharged and which is due to be heard in front of a fresh jury this week. That of course is the trial of Vicky Pryce, ex wife of the disgraced former Liberal Democrat MP and Transport Energy Secretary Chris Huhne. Mr Huhne has pleaded guilty to perverting the course of justice by avoiding a prosecution for speeding a decade ago, having his erstwhile wife take 3 points on her license instead. Ms Pryce is contesting the same charge. This case has generated much controversy in the past week with claims that the jury system is fundamentally flawed.

This case should court controversy for a very different reason. The defence of "marital coercion" that is being relied upon is archaic in that it is only available to a "wife". The defence is provided by the Criminal Justice Act 1925 - section 47, wherein is stated:
"Any presumption of law that an offence committed by a wife in the presence of her husband is committed under the coercion of the husband is hereby abolished, but on a charge against a wife for any offence other than treason or murder it shall be a good defence to prove that the offence was committed in the presence of, and under the coercion of, the husband."
I am surely not alone in thinking that it is ridiculous in the present day when efforts are well under way to redefine marriage as being open to same sex couples, that there exists this distinction in law to afford a criminal defence to a "wife" that is not available to a "husband". The terms husband and wife have themselves become obsolete. Wikipedia reports that in 1977 the Law Commission recommended that this defence be abolished altogether as it is no longer appropriate. It is no longer appropriate because a husband no longer holds legal dominance over his wife. Although there is still quite some way to go before society treats women as truly equal to men, the law does grant equal rights to this demographic. And yet, the defence still stands.

Perhaps the next jury hearing the Pryce trial will take the audacious step of disregarding the defence of marital coercion and treating the defendant as a woman in her own right who is capable of making bad decisions and taking responsibility for the consequences.


  1. I think that just because the defence is available only to women doesn't mean they shouldn't avail themselves of it. Agree it should also be available to men and partners of same sex couples.

    There - I am not to be coerced into sharing your opinion :P

  2. You will note that marital coercion requires you to have been in my presence. Please come home so I can coerce you.


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