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'We need to stop victims of abuse being blamed'

By Richard Guttridge | Crime | Published:

Calls for changes to the law around domestic abuse killings are growing louder and, if backed by politicians in the near future, could have far-reaching consequences for the legal system in this country.

A campaign to change the law around the so-called "Fifty Shades" defence, which was prompted by the death of a woman in the West Midlands, has been given momentum by Harriet Harman, the most high-profile supporter of the cause.

The former Labour frontbencher is, along with Wyre Forest MP Mark Garnier, leading the calls for change in Parliament to stop men either getting away with abusing, or in some cases killing, their partners or getting lesser sentences by claiming they consented to it.

It's often used as a defence in cases of rape and abuse, and sometimes murder - that the woman was a willing participant in some violent sexual act and was hurt, or killed, unintentionally.

It can prove a powerful argument in court and has led to the prosecution to back down from a murder charge in favour of manslaughter, believing they will stand a better chance of securing a conviction.

Campaigners say it is now time to change the law to stop the victims of abuse being blamed. It can be particularly traumatic for abuse victims to have to defend themselves in court, often where elements of their sexual history are dredged up in public.

Of course, in cases where the woman has died she cannot speak for herself.

It was the result of the case following the death of Natalie Connolly in Kinver which left one campaigner so incensed that she felt compelled to act.

Ms Connolly was left to die in a pool of blood at the bottom of the stairs by her partner John Broadhurst during a drink-and-drugs-fuelled sex session in which she was subjected to violent abuse.

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Broadhurst was jailed for less than four years after his murder charge was downgraded to manslaughter. He sensationally attempted to appeal his sentence - despite widespread anger it was too short - but failed last week.

Fiona Makenzie launched the group We Can't Consent to This in response to the "short manslaughter sentence" which highlights cases where "rough sex" is used as a defence and calls for a change to the law.

The proposed amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill also includes stopping murder charges being dropped to manslaughter, unless approved by the Director of Public Prosecutions.

The Broadhurst case proved the tipping point for Ms Makenzie, originally from the north of Scotland, who describes herself as a feminist campaigner "working through a list of things I'm angry about". She said she grown increasingly angered at seeing killers "sympathetically presented on the news" and felt she could no longer stand by without speaking out.

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Calls for change grew louder last week as the killer of British backpacker Grace Millane was found guilty of murder in New Zealand. He had claimed she died by accident during sex.

“It got a lot of press coverage, a lot of people heard about it and were outraged. There was increasing disquiet,” Ms Makenzie said of the Broadhurst case.

She decided to conduct research into how common cases like Ms Connolly's were and was astounded to learn that in just under half of cases - 45 per cent - the "Fifty Shades" defence resulted in defendants getting a lesser charge.

"There were many men claiming women died during consensual sex," she said. "By the time we got into the early part of this year we had found 59 women."

Ms Makenzie said she was aware of women who had met men through online dating websites or in nightclubs and been punched and choked when they went home with them, only then to have to explain themselves in court when their attacker claimed they were willing participants.

She said: "We know families who have spoken about this and it's absolutely horrific. It's a travesty that after these appalling acts of violence women have their alleged sexual history presented in court."

Asked what compelled her to launch the group, she said: "To understand the scale of the issue and communicate that and to collect as much as I can on these cases and raise awareness.

"And to recognise these woman are not isolated incidents. Often these men have extremely serious previous convictions against women.

"Saying these women were responsible for their own death, that's appalling and all too often successful."

The pace of the of the Parliamentary machine is notoriously slow, even without the distraction of a forthcoming general election, but Ms Makenzie is hopeful the changes to the law will be passed through next year - particularly with the support of as someone as well known and highly regarded as Labour's Ms Harman.

She said: "I would be amazed if there was widespread opposition to this. There are no guarantees the Domestic Abuse Bill will come back after the election but if it goes smoothly it could happen in the first part of next year."

Richard Guttridge

By Richard Guttridge
Investigations Editor - @RichG_star

Investigations Editor for the Express & Star.

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