Today commemorates the one-year anniversary since the introduction of the new offense of ‘strangulation and suffocation’, aimed at addressing a previously overlooked form of violence. In the past, these assaults were often not taken seriously and either went unpunished or were charged as common assaults.
Under the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, the new law specifically categorizes strangulation and suffocation as criminal acts, carrying a maximum sentence of five years for perpetrators.
A recent ruling by the Court of Appeal emphasized that strangulation instills a legitimate and justifiable fear of death, making immediate imprisonment the usual course of action. While the starting point for sentencing is set at 18 months, longer terms may be imposed based on aggravating factors such as a history of violence, abuse of power, substance abuse, use of a ligature, or attempts to impede the victim from seeking help. It is worth noting that physical or psychological harm is not necessary for a conviction.
The Journey Towards Legislative Change
Reflecting back three years ago, my awareness of these issues was limited. However, a fortuitous phone call with Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse (AAFDA) initiated my involvement. I have proudly served as a patron of AAFDA since my tenure as an MP, providing assistance to its founder, Frank Mullane MBE, who tragically lost his sister and nephew to domestic abuse.
During that fateful phone call, AAFDA appealed for my support in their campaign to enshrine this specific offense in law. Subsequently, I spearheaded a group effort that successfully led to the legal amendment and the establishment of the Institute for Addressing Strangulation, a part of the Faculty of Forensic & Legal Medicine. Just last month, the faculty held its annual conference in York, where services for victims of strangulation took center stage.
Impacts Faced by Victims of Strangulation and Suffocation
Discovering that an estimated 20,000 women in the UK experience non-fatal strangulation each year has been profoundly shocking. Compounding this trauma is the fact that children frequently witness these attacks, as the Crown Prosecution Service recently revealed that one-third of non-fatal strangulation cases involved the presence of children.
For victims, being strangled is a horrifying experience that often involves coming face-to-face with their perpetrator. In cases of domestic abuse, the assailant is someone they once loved and expected to be safe with, but instead, they find themselves fearing for their life.
This fear is justified, as women who are strangled are seven times more likely to become murder victims. Strangulation itself serves as the cause of death in numerous homicides. Between April 2011 and March 2022, strangulation or suffocation accounted for 18% of female homicide victims in England and Wales, as well as 6% of male homicide victims.
Prior to my involvement in the campaign, I was unaware that victims of strangulation could lose consciousness in less than seven seconds and may experience seizures and incontinence within 30 seconds, indicating neurological damage. Death can occur within minutes.
Additionally, strangulation can result in memory loss, with some victims who lose consciousness unaware of having done so.
Furthermore, these attacks can lead to a range of long-term complications, including stroke (strangulation being the second most common cause of stroke in women under 40), miscarriage, facial droop, hearing and vision loss, behavioral changes, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other psychiatric conditions. Recent discoveries highlight the significant risk of brain damage resulting from strangulation.
It is important to emphasize that these attacks often occur within the context of coercive control, which in itself constitutes an offense. Children can also fall victim to such attacks.
The Intersection of Strangulation and Sex
Apart from instances of strangulation related to domestic abuse and sexual assault, there has been an increasing incidence of strangulation during consensual sexual encounters. This trend can be attributed, in part, to the normalization of strangulation in pornography. However, there is little evidence to suggest that strangulation enhances women’s sexual experiences.
Some perpetrators claim that their partners consented to strangulation; however, informed consent necessitates an understanding of the associated risks. Without such comprehension, consent cannot be deemed valid. Moreover, consent should always be revocable, but due to oxygen deprivation to the brain, victims can find themselves immobilized and unable to communicate within seconds.
The Domestic Abuse Act explicitly states that a victim cannot provide consent for strangulation or suffocation resulting in actual bodily harm or worse. Thus, consent is not a valid defense for perpetrators in such cases.
The Way Forward
Significant gaps in services remain.
There is a pressing need for training to help key personnel in the criminal justice system and the NHS identify signs of strangulation. Victims may present with long-term neck or throat injuries or limb weaknesses that could be detected by GPs long after the incident.
While sexual assault referral centers exist nationwide, providing support to victims of strangulation or suffocation as part of a sexual assault, there is a dearth of health and forensic support available for victims of strangulation in domestic abuse situations. Addressing this gap is of utmost importance.
Increased investment in domestic abuse support services is essential for aiding victims. Early interventions have the potential to save lives and prevent future attacks and the associated harms, leading to cost savings.
Perpetrators must be held accountable for their actions, with sentences reflecting the gravity of their assaults. Some offenders may themselves require assistance in managing aggression and controlling tendencies, as they may have experienced personal trauma.
During the first year of implementing this specific offense, professionals within the criminal justice system and the NHS have demonstrated a keen interest in learning the most effective means of implementing the legislation and providing care for victims. Their feedback indicates that this new law is already making a difference. Although much work lies ahead, I am optimistic that this legal change will ultimately save lives and safeguard women and their families from the anguish wrought by this previously neglected form of violence.
Source – yorkshirebylines