10th June 2019

In 2010 after decades of sexual abuse, humiliation and extreme coercive control Sally Challen killed her husband Richard Challen with a hammer to his head. At her trial the years of abuse that she had endured, and its impact on her, were downplayed and she was characterised as a violent, compulsively jealous wife. She was sentenced to life with a minimum tariff of 22 years.

She married Richard at 16 when he was  22. She is now 65. She successfully appealed her conviction for murder in April of this year and was released on bail pending a retrial on the basis of new evidence, namely that she was suffering from a mental disorder at the time of the killing.

At the time she was convicted there was no crime of coercive control and no understanding of the hugely corrosive impact of it on the victim. The new law did not come in until 2015.

The appeal was allowed on the grounds that the medical evidence at the time showed that she was suffering from an Adjustment Disorder which is a very short-term mental breakdown and usually happens as a result of severe trauma, such as she had experienced for 3 decades of her relationship with her abuser – she finally mentally imploded.

Our knowledge of coercive control is still in its infancy – and it can occur in terms of Domestic Abuse, grooming by sex gangs, radicalisation. What we are beginning to understand is that it is devastating to the victim and that we need to deal with it better and understand it better in the criminal and family justice system.

Sentences don’t reflect the crime, say Women’s Aid, and they are correct.

The maximum sentence for Coercive Control is 5 years but this is extremely rare.

In August 2017 Women’s Aid were campaigning on this after a woman was effectively held prisoner for 2 years by her partner Harley Smith – he was sentenced to 12 weeks prison, suspended for 12 months – a walk out, in other words. She got 2 years in prison, he was set free.

Coercive Control  involves: Bullying, isolation, gaslighting, humiliation – it can involve control of every aspect of the victims life from who they can speak to, to whether they are allowed out of the house to not allowing any access to joint finances. Threats of violence and death, mock executions.

Richard Challen had affairs, spent money on himself and his visiting brothers. He met other women on dating sites, all of which he flaunted to his wife.

He raped her, he drove her to attempted suicide. It is a very common crime and a very little understood one. Most victims don’t know that it is a crime and blame themselves for their suffering.

Open Clasp Theatre company play Rattle Snake is a brilliant depiction of the impact of coercive control. It is being used to train the police in recognising it and understanding the impact of it – which is essential.

This week a Police report announced that an incident of Domestic Abuse is being reported to them every second. We know that they do not have the resources to deal with anything but a tiny fraction of the calls for help. Birmingham University reported this week in the Journal of Psychiatric medicine that GPs are not recognising abuse, nor do they have the resources to, yet it is a massive factor on the health of victims with most suffering from some form of mental illness as a result, from PTSD, severe depression, and even psychosis.

We must do better to identify, recognise and intervene in cases such as this. As Sally Challen said in her press conference last Friday after the CPS accepted a plea of manslaughter, and she was released from prison on the basis of time served: “There are many other women in prison for the same reason as I was. I know because I have met them”.

Huge congratulations to Harriet Wistrich and Centre for Women’s Justice for their brave and pioneering work in this case and other cases like it.

BHB Partner Cris McCurley being interviewed on BBC News about the Sally Challen case
BHB Partner Cris McCurley being interviewed on BBC News about the Sally Challen case

Blog by Cris McCurley, Partner