The Vicky Pryce Case Highlights Why ‘Marital Coercion’ Should Be Thrown Out
Source- The Guardian
Vicky Pryce claimed in court that her ex-husband Chris Huhne coerced her into admitting to a driving offence that he committed. Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters
The defence of marital coercion is a relic of a bygone age. Vicky Pryce unsuccessfully argued that it absolved her from criminal liability for lying about driving her then husband’s car when it was caught speeding. Many observers thought this was an extraordinary defence for any woman, let alone a former joint head of the government economic service. But a defendant is entitled to take the law as he or she finds it, and there was always a chance that the jury might have shown sympathy for a woman deserted by her husband.
Indeed, the first jury that tried Pryce last month failed to agree even on a majority verdict, suggesting that some members, at least, were persuaded by this defence.
The Law Commission, which advises the government on law reform, recommended as long ago as 1977 that marital coercion should be abolished as a defence – though a wife who committed an offence under pressure from her husband might still have a defence under the law of duress. Under English common law – the law laid down by the judges over the centuries – there was a presumption (which could be challenged) that a wife who committed an offence in the presence of her husband did so under coercion and therefore should be acquitted. That presumption, which dated back to the time before defendants could give evidence, was abolished in 1925. But the Criminal Justice Act passed that year still said that “on a charge against a wife for any offence other than treason or murder it shall be a good defence to prove that the offence was committed in the presence of, and under the coercion of, the husband”.
That apparently left Pryce with the burden of producing evidence to show that Chris Huhne was present when she signed forms between March and May 2003 falsely informing the authorities that she had been driving the car. But, after being addressed by lawyers on the effect of the Human Rights Act, Mr Justice Sweeney decided there was no requirement for Pryce to prove that Huhne had coerced her. It was for the prosecution service to prove that he had not done so. The prosecutor could do that either by proving that Huhne was not present when Pryce committed the offence, or by proving that her will had not been overborne. For that defence to apply, the judge explained: “Her will must have been overborne in the sense that she was impelled to commit the offence because she truly believed that she had no real choice but to do so.”
She would not have had a defence if, for example, she had been persuaded by force of argument to commit the offence. Nor would the defence have applied if she had been persuaded to commit the offence out of love for, or loyalty to, her husband. Though the judge did not mention this, the reference to a wife’s will being overborne came from a ruling by the court of appeal in 2002. In that case, which involved a drugs conspiracy, the court made it clear that physical force or even the threat of force was not required for the defence of marital coercion to apply.
The 1925 act makes it clear that the defence of marital coercion applies only to “a wife”. It is not available to unmarried women or to men. There can surely no longer be any justification for a law that treats women as if they are more susceptible to this kind of coercion than men and treats wives as being more coercible than unmarried women. It may also be time to consider changing the law that says a person cannot be accused of conspiring with their partner or spouse. There may be a further opportunity for the court of appeal to consider the scope of marital coercion if Pryce is granted permission to appeal against her conviction. The judges would no doubt be asked to rule that the defence should apply to husbands and cohabitants.
But there is an even stronger argument for simply abolishing coercion as a defence, leaving defendants to establish duress if they can. In 1991, a driver who feared he was about to be beaten up was able to rely on the defence of duress to a charge of driving away from his assailants while drunk.
It has been the habit of successive governments to ignore calls for law reform unless there is some political capital to be gained. This government should heed the advice of the Law Commission and abolish the law of marital coercion at the earliest opportunity.