The defence of marital coercion, unsuccessfully used by Chris Huhne’s former wife Vicky Pryce at her trial last year, is to be abolished.
Currently, English law provides a defence for a woman charged with a criminal offence, other than treason or murder, who can show that the offence was committed in the presence, and under the coercion of, her husband. What remains of the original common law defence of marital coercion is contained in section 47 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925:
“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”.
The Home Office Minister, Lord Taylor, has indicated the current Government’s support for an amendment to the antisocial behaviour, crime and policing bill to repeal this provision of the Criminal Justice Act 1925. Peers are anticipated to approve the amendment during the report stage next week which was scheduled last year by the peer Lord Pannick QC.
“I welcome the Government’s decision to remove an absurd law that should have been abolished a long time ago.”
The defence is widely regarded as a relic of days gone by and can be used only by a woman married to a man. Lord Taylor pointed out that the Law Commission had called for the abolition of the defence as long ago as 1977 and commented:
“We are satisfied that the defence is indeed anachronistic,”
Vicky Pryce advanced the defence of marital coercion at her 2013 trial for perverting the course of justice. She argued that she falsely accepted penalty points under the coercion of her former husband and Liberal Democrat Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Chris Huhne MP. She contended that it absolved her from criminal liability for lying about driving her then husband’s car when it was seen speeding. At the time it was commented that this was an unusual defence for any woman, let alone a former joint Head of the Government Economic Service.
Until 2013, it was thought that the burden of proof lay on the defence to prove marital coercion on the balance of probabilities. For duress, the burden is on the prosecution to disprove duress beyond reasonable doubt. However, in the trial of Vicky Pryce the trial judge, Mr Justice Sweeney, ruled that the defence had only to show some evidence that the defence applied in order to require the prosecution to disprove the defence beyond reasonable doubt, as in duress cases.
The jury at such trial convicted Ms Pryce and did not accept the defence. However, it should be noted that the jury at the first trial failed to agree on a majority verdict, which would suggest that some of the jury members were amendable to the defence.
It is intended that abolition of the defence will take effect two months after the bill is passed by Parliament.