Updating the Outdated
The government has announced that it is to abolish the dated ‘marital coercion’ defence as part of an amendment to the antisocial behaviour, crime and policing Bill.
Keen watchers of last year’s Chris Huhne/Vicky Price soap opera might have wondered at the marital coercion defence offered by the scorned wife’s team: its decidedly eighteenth-century nature struck an odd note amid the thoroughly twenty-first century scandal.
The archaic phrase provides a woman with complete defence against criminal charges if they can demonstrate the offense was committed under the coercion, and in the presence, of her husband. Murder and treason are exempt, much to the chagrin of many a penny-dreadful novelist, who might have found it the perfect plot device. And note that it applies to wives only: presumably, stout and stalwart gentlemen are above the machinations of mere women (yes: we’re looking at you, Macbeth).
Whilst the defence is indeed eighteenth-century in origin (dating at least to an Old Bailey case in 1732 when one Mary Day was forced by her husband to commit theft), its place on the statue books was affirmed as late as 1925, when it was included in Section 47 of the Criminal Justice Act.
The notion that Vicky Price – a formidable individual and former joint head of the government’s economic service – could claim such a defence struck most observers as preposterous. It’s impossible to say for certain, but perhaps it emphasised the absurdity of the defence and partially motivated the proposed amendment.
This is arguably a mere side-show to the broader stage of legal life – but it serves to demonstrate how suddenly legislation can change after centuries of stasis. If ever lawyers or legal professionals rest secure in their understanding, along comes a case or a code to shake them out of complacency.
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