‘Today, I have come out of my husband’s jail and entered the jail of the law’
Kiranjit Ahluwalia 1989
This was our first case in which we supported and campaigned on behalf of a battered woman who had killed her husband.
Kiranjit Ahluwalia, an Asian woman, set fire to her husband Deepak in May 1989 after suffering abuse and brutality for 10 years. She was charged with murder and imprisoned for life. Her tariff was 12 years. We initially became involved at the time of her conviction at the request of Crawley Women’s Centre which was based in her home town of Crawley, Sussex. Following her conviction, Kiranjit was advised by her then legal team who represented her at her murder trial that there were no grounds for appeal. Initially we provided ancillary support – helping to transfer the custody of her two children from her mother-in-law to her sister and to support her in prison.
However, as we also strongly felt that a miscarriage of justice had occurred, we set about trying to re-open the criminal case. We were turned down by a number of criminal lawyers who felt that there was no new evidence to re-open her case. But eventually, we succeeded in obtaining the assistance of, Rohit Sanghvi, who often gave legal advise to SBS, and who without the benefit of legal aid, agreed to support us through the arduous process of assessing whether there were any grounds for appeal. We embarked on a lengthy exercise of getting a detailed statement from her which we hoped would provide the fresh evidence needed to form the basis of a new appeal. Over the next two years, together with her new legal team we carried out detailed and painstaking work which led to the preparation of her grounds of appeal. On September 1991, Kiranjit was given leave to appeal on the basis of new evidence concerning her experiences of domestic violence and its impact on battered women and on the basis that the trial judge had misdirected the jury on the criminal law of provocation.
At her appeal hearing in July 1992 which was presided over by the then Lord Chief Justice, Taylor, Kiranjit’s barristers put forward new defences of provocation and diminished responsibility. Although the Court of Appeal rejected the grounds of provocation as a basis of her appeal, nevertheless it accepted that the defence of provocation, and in particular the requirement of a ‘sudden and temporary loss of self control’ had been traditionally interpreted in ways which excluded the experiences of battered women. It recognised the notion of cumulative provocation and also accepted that as a matter of law, the time lapse between an act of provocation and the fatal act need not be construed as a cooling-off period. Instead, the Court accepted that the time lapse could be seen as a ‘boiling over’ period and as a factual matter that could be left to the jury to determine. Kiranjit won her appeal on the grounds of diminished responsibility based on new psychiatric evidence of her long standing depression due to her experiences of violence and abuse. A retrial was ordered. However, at her new trial at the Old Bailey in London, in September 1992, the Crown accepted her plea of manslaughter on the basis of diminished responsibility and she was sentenced to three years and four months imprisonment, exactly the time she had already served. Kiranjit therefore walked out of Court a free woman to scenes of jubilation from the large number of supporters who had gathered outside the court.
Alongside the legal campaign, we campaigned and mobilised public opinion in our own communities and in the wider community through public meetings, pickets, demos and media coverage. Kiranjit became a household name. The campaign also joined forces with other women’s groups as part of a wider feminist campaign on battered women who kill and the criminal justice system and in doing so, highlighted the male bias of the criminal justice system and the criminal law that affects all women. For us, the campaign was a high point of feminist activity on violence against women. This case received support from unexpected quarters within our communities and did much to raise awareness of domestic violence and the plight of women trapped in such situations.
The book ‘PROVOKED: The story of Kiranjit Ahluwalia’, published by Harper Collins India is now available from Southall Black Sisters. It was previously published under the title ‘Circle of Light’, and has recently been made into a film, Provoked.
For a detailed account of the Kiranjit Aluwalia and the Zoora Shah Campaign See ‘from homebreakers to jailbreakers’ SBS published by Zed Books 2003.
The legal debate on homicide
Although feminists hailed the judgment in Kiranjit’s case as a significant step forward in opening up the partial defence of provocation to women who kill, there was increasing disquiet that such cases blurred the distinction between diminished responsibility and provocation. The case of Morgan Smith went to the House of Lords in 2000 for clarification on this distinction. The campaigning organisation, Justice for Women and SBS made a joint intervention in this case because there was widespread concern that the progress that had been made in criminal law for abused women who had killed would be clawed back.
In 2003, the Government announced a review of the law of homicide in response to concerns about the law which had been expressed in a number of high profile cases like that of Kiranjit Ahluwalia, Emma Humphreys and Sara Thornton. The Law Commission published a consultation paper, Partial Defences to Murder.
In January 2009, the Government published the responses Summary of Responses and Government Position to its consultation on proposals for reform of the Homicide Act 1957. With regard to killings in a domestic context, their main proposal was to abolish the existing partial defence of provocation and replace it with two new partial defences of: killing in response to a fear of serious violence; and (to apply only in exceptional circumstances) killing in response to words and conduct which caused the defendant to have a justifiable sense of being seriously wronged. Sexual infidelity on the part of the victim would not constitute grounds for reducing murder to manslaughter. It was also proposed that a new definition of diminished responsibility based on the concept of a “recognised medical condition” be introduced.
On 4 October 2010, the law of murder in England and Wales was changed as a result. The law of provocation was finally abolished in recognition of the fact that it was male biased and outdated. The Coroners and Justice Act 2009 introduced a new partial defence to murder known as ‘loss of control’. However, defendants still have to meet one of two qualifying triggers to show that the fatal act resulted in a loss of control: Either that they feared serious violence or that a thing or things said and done (or both) constituted circumstances of an extremely grave character and caused the defendant to have a justifiable sense of being seriously wronged. The main point is that the requirement of ‘suddeness’ was removed which made it easier for battered women to show that they acted as a result of slow burn rage. At the same time, factors such as sexual infidelity and a desire for revenge, traditionally excuses used by men who killed, would no longer be grounds for reducing murder to manslaughter.