Domestic abuse, suicide and liability for manslaughter: In pursuit of justice for victims

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Abstract

There is significant debate about the attribution of criminal responsibility for involuntary manslaughter to a defendant who has subjected a victim to a protracted campaign of emotional abuse (falling short of psychiatric injury), where the victim has consequently taken their own life. By virtue of it having been subjected to the most comprehensive judicial and academic scrutiny in this context, the primary focus of this discussion is on the applicability of the unlawful act manslaughter offence to the circumstances described above. The offence requires proof that the victim was placed at risk of some harm by virtue of the defendant’s criminal conduct and that the abusive conduct significantly contributed to the victim’s death. The accused does not have to foresee or intend the victim’s death, and while the imposition of criminal responsibility for serious homicide offences in cases where the defendant displays no subjective advertence to the risk of death has long been controversial, it is nonetheless well established in English and Welsh criminal law. Therefore, assuming satisfaction of the requisite offence elements, there is arguably no principled reason to deny the extension of liability to domestic abuse-induced suicide cases. It is proposed that a more progressive and transparent approach to the interpretation of the unlawful act manslaughter offence requirements provides the most appropriate means of securing prosecutions in deserving cases, although alternative options for the imposition of liability—the offence of gross negligence manslaughter and the creation of a context-specific homicide offence—are also acknowledged. It is argued that the constructive manslaughter offence label reflects both the moral culpability of the perpetrator’s patterned and invasive conduct and the exceptional gravity of the harm caused by non-physical domestic abuse.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Criminal Law
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 7 Jul 2020

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