By Jamie Ensor
The UK government has confirmed it will introduce legislation to make non-fatal strangulation a criminal offence similarly to what New Zealand did in 2018.
Over recent years, campaigners in England and Wales have called on the local government to make non-fatal strangulation a specific criminal act rather than leaving it covered by common assault and attempted murder offences as it currently is.
Support for the new offence soared in January when former Victims’ Commissioner Baroness Helen Newlove tabled an amendment in the House of Lords proposing the change.
Initially, Boris Johnson’s government said there were no plans to amend the law. However, later that month, with public pressure mounting, it was reported that Justice Secretary Robert Buckland was considering the change.
That was confirmed on Tuesday, with the government now intending to make an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill currently being debated in the House of Lords. The amendment would make the criminal offence punishable by up to five years in prison.
Other changes include expanding the law targeting revenge porn to include threats to disclose intimidate images with the intent to cause distress.
Domestic Abuse Commissioner Nicole Jacobs is quoted by The Guardian as welcoming the changes, but also calling for the government to increase “the provision of services in the community and ensuring protections are extended to all victims and survivors, regardless of their immigration status.”
Nogah Ofer, a solicitor at the Centre for Women’s Justice, said the new law will “shine a light on this horrific form of abuse and as a society we must not tolerate it any longer”.
“This new law is just the first step in addressing non-fatal strangulation. We need to educate police and prosecutors, medical professionals, domestic abuse workers and the wider public to recognise this form of abuse and the long-term physical and emotional harm it causes.”
Campaigners have long said a specific offence is needed to reflect the magnitude of the crime as non-fatal strangulation can often be used as a means of control and intimidation.
“It’s not about intending to kill, it’s about terrorising into submission,” current Victims’ Commissioner Dame Vera Baird said earlier this year. “This is a crime which has massive consequences, and is a hugely powerful weapon, but has no place in the current criminal lexicon.”
Advocacy group We Can’t Consent To This shared research in December which found up to 10 percent of the population have experienced strangulation, rising to 50 percent among women subject to routine domestic abuse and 20 percent of women who have been sexually assaulted. It also found if a woman has been strangled, their chance of being murdered rises eightfold.
In 2018, the Family Violence (Amendments) Act was passed in Aotearoa, making “strangulation or suffocation” a new, specific family violence offence with a maximum penalty of seven years’ imprisonment. That change came after a 2016 report from the Law Commission which detailed the physical and psychological impact on victims.
During a debate on Baroness Newlove’s amendment in January, New Zealand’s legislation was frequently brought up.
“Non-fatal strangulation is far more serious than common assault and is a genuine red flag to murder. It should never be trivialised or ignored,” said Conservative Baroness Gabrielle Bertin.
“New Zealand has already introduced it as a stand-alone offence, which is beginning to make a difference in levels of charging and understanding among police, the wider justice system and medical teams.”
The 2016 Law Commission report said strangulation was known to “be very common” and that the harm caused by it “ranges from struggling to breathe to loss of consciousness, to death”.
“The psychological impact on victims can be devastating. It is often said that, while the abuser may not be intending to kill, he is demonstrating that he can kill.
“It is unsurprising that strangulation is a uniquely effective form of intimidation, coercion and control.”
The two key factors distinguishing it from other forms of family violence were that it is “an important risk factor for a future fatal attack” and that it typically leaves few marks or signs.
It was reported last year that after the new offence came into effect police launched proceedings for an average of five cases of non-fatal strangulation or suffocation each day.
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