Examining the history of the Marital Coercion defence and its implications for case of R -v- Pryce

Occasionally an old and little used law will dust itself off and spring back into the public consciousness. Thanks to Mr Chris Huhne and his ex-wife Vicky Pryce who is currently standing trial for allegedly perverting the course of justice. In 2003 Chris Huhne allegedly forced his then wife, Vicky Pryce, to lie to police that she had been driving the family car when it was caught speeding by a traffic camera instead of him. Her defence, and one that is available to any criminal charge, with the exception of treason or murder, and only available to women, is that of Marital Coercion pursuant to section 47 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925.

Marital Coercion is a “special defence” that has a long and interesting history. 1922 was the last time that the common law defence of the melancholy doctrine or marital coercion was used in the UK. Mr. Justice Darling in the case of R v Peel (1922), held that the “melancholy doctrine” that a wife can be coerced by her husband into the commission of a crime was still the law of the land whenever husband and wife are jointly indicted of a crime. This legal doctrine was founded on the assumption that a wife would not dare to contradict her husband. There were many criticisms of the law and calls were made to introduce a Bill to abolish it as it was seen to be out of date. The law needed to be brought into closer accord with the well-known facts of then present-day matrimonial life. The result of which was the Criminal Justice Act 1925.

Section 47 of the act states that: 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.

While the Marital Coercion defence is broadly similar to the defence of duress, it has the following differences that should be considered. To establish the defence, the man and woman must be married at the time of the offence in relation to which coercion is claimed. A Civil Partnership will not suffice and a husband cannot claim for the defence himself. R v Ditta, Hussain and Kara [1988] Crim. L. R. 42, CA was a case where the defendant was not in fact married at the time of the alleged offence but believed that she had been. The Court of Appeal, however, decided that a mistaken belief that a woman is married, even if reasonable, will not suffice for a defence to be successfully put forward.

Another important aspect of section 47 is that it requires both that the offence be committed in the presence of the husband and also under his coercion. In the case of DPP for Northern Ireland v Lynch [1975] AC 653 the word coercion was said to amount to an external force which cannot be resisted and which impels a person to act otherwise than the person would wish.

The case of R v Gary Richmond and Ann Richmond [1982] Crim LR 507 is also highly relevant as his Honour Justice Hutton directed the jury at Bristol Crown Court that coercion could be both physical or moral. Coercion was not the same as trying to persuade someone out of loyalty but instead involved proof that the wife was forced unwillingly to participate in the offence.

In 1977, the Law Commission recommended that the defence of marital coercion should be abolished altogether for several reasons, the first being the actual application of the law. It was believed that there were uncertainties surrounding the operation of the defence, for example, in relation to the strictness of the requirement in law that the husband be physically present when the wife commits the offence. In a modern world whereby people can communicate with each other at the touch of a button surely there would need to be some scope to manoeuvre on this aspect of the law.

Moreover, the Law Commission argued that they did not consider it to be appropriate to modern conditions. Many married women were then and are now financially independent from their husbands. Some commentators have suggested, as in the Law Commission’s report, that it is absurd to provide a special defence to wives which is not readily available to other women who may be placed in an equally vulnerable position. What of a woman cohabiting with a man or a daughter under the age of 18?

Furthermore, it could be argued that a defence that only applies to women could be seen as sexist. Are women incapable of coercing men? Are women so meek that they are still regarded as being subservient to men, particularly their husbands? Do they require greater protection from their spouses than their husbands do from them?

Moreover, with Parliament passing its Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill – which MPs backed after its second reading in the House of Commons – the government proposes that couples who are the same-sex can now get married. So in its current form the law on marital coercion would only apply to lesbian couples and not gay male couples.

In summing up the prosecution case in R v Pryce, Andrew Edis QC asked the jury to “look at who you are trying…Do you really think there’s any prospect of this woman having been reduced to such a quivering jelly that when she sent the form she thought she had no choices? Is she the quivering jelly kind? Or is she the kind of person to stand her ground to make her own choices? Yes she is.”

I eagerly await the decision in R v Pryce to see whether or not the law of marital coercion is still seen as relevant by the courts and specifically the public in the 21st Century, but also to see what future developments come of it. Does the defence need abolishing or amending? Only time will tell.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the writer and this article does not constitute legal advice.