A need for tougher sentences in murder cases following domestic abuse and stalking
The Alice Ruggles Trust strongly supports the proposal that sentencing decisions in murder cases should take into account the mental or physical suffering inflicted on the victim before death, but urges that statutory measures are strong enough to ensure appropriate tougher sentencing in domestic abuse cases and that the recognised aggravating factors should include stalking.
An independent review of domestic homicide sentencing published on March 17 recommends a toughening of sentencing guidelines where a murder follows a history of domestic abuse.
Currently, the statutory minimum tariff for murder is 15 years, or 25 years if there are aggravating factors, such as when a weapon is brought to the scene. Killing in a domestic context is not, by itself, regarded as an aggravating factor even though it may have resulted from the escalation of coercive and controlling behaviour that has persisted for a considerable time—many years in some cases. The fear and torment caused by such abuse, even where it does not include physical violence, impacts hugely upon the victim’s mental health. We believe that a murder following a history of such abuse should incur a statutory minimum tariff of 25 years.
The review recommends that a history of coercive control—or, more generally, mental or physical suffering inflicted on the victim before death—should be considered an aggravating factor when sentencing decisions are made in murder cases.
We urge that such considerations include stalking.
Stalking has no legal definition in the UK but is widely understood to be a pattern of unwanted, fixated and obsessive behaviour which is intrusive and causes fear of violence or serious alarm or distress. Coercive control within a relationship can all too often turn to stalking if the victim ends the relationship. Although ex-partner stalking occurs outside the relationship, it is strongly linked to it—it is part of a developing pattern or course of conduct.
Stalking is unbearably distressing for the victim, who may be no safer in their home even if the perpetrator is no longer living there. While the report recommends that “if a murder takes place at the end of a relationship or when the victim has expressed the desire to end the relationship then this should be regarded as an aggravating factor”, it falls short of mentioning what happens when the victim leaves the relationship but continues to be stalked. As in Alice's case, this is part of the continuing escalation of fixation and control that all too often precedes murder.
Dominic Raab was reported as saying that the government will “introduce a statutory aggravating factor as soon as possible that would lift sentences by up to two years or potentially more” (The Guardian, 17 March 2023). This is not enough. We must redress the current situation where a domestic killer typically faces a decade less in prison than one outside the home.
It’s not difficult!
Legally, all that is required is a simple amendment to schedule 21 of the Sentencing Act 2000, creating a new sub paragraph in sub paragraph 3 (2) reading “the killing was carried out in a period of stalking or coercive control”. This would nominate stalking and coercive control as an aggravating feature and thus attracting a starting point of 25 years.
While we press for this, we acknowledge that recognition of stalking remains poor. For this reason, understanding the victim’s experiences in the context of murders by partners or ex-partners is of the utmost importance.