Battered woman defense

The battered woman defense is a defense used in court that the person accused of an assault/murder was suffering from battered person syndrome at the material time. Because the defense is most commonly used by women, it is usually characterised in court as battered woman syndrome or battered wife syndrome.

There is no medical classification for this specific syndrome in the sense used by lawyers, though it has historically been invoked in court systems. Similar to an insanity plea, battered person syndrome is purely a legal term used to refer to the severe psychological trauma caused by domestic abuse. Although the condition is not gender-specific, the admission of evidence regarding battered woman syndrome as relevant to the defense of self-defense is commonly understood as a response by some jurisdictions to male favorable gender-bias in the criminal justice system. Thus, this is a reference to any person who, because of constant and severe domestic abuse usually involving physical abuse or threats of physical abuse by a partner, may become severely depressed or unable to take any independent action that would allow him or her to escape the abuse.

Usually the victim's fears are based in reality, as she may lack the social support, financial means, or may be too physically or emotionally disabled to survive on her own. Victims may have low self-esteem, suffer from Stockholm Syndrome, and are often led to believe that the abuse is their fault, that they deserved it, and, due to misplaced feelings of loyalty, or fear of retaliation from their abuser, may be unwilling to press charges against their abuser.[1]

There is consensus in the medical profession that abuse often results in PTSD [2] The law makes reference to a psychological condition,[3] even though neither the DSM nor the ICD medical classification guides as currently drafted includes the syndrome in the sense used by lawyers.

The law

The courts in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom, and United States have accepted the extensive and growing body of research showing that battered partners can use force to defend themselves and sometimes kill their abusers because of the abusive and sometimes life-threatening situation in which they find themselves, acting in the firm belief that there is no other way than to kill for self-preservation. The courts have recognized that this evidence may support a variety of defenses to a charge of murder or to mitigate the sentence if convicted of lesser offenses. Battered woman syndrome is not a legal defense in and of itself, but may legally constitute:

However, in 1994, as part of the Violence Against Women Act, the United States Congress ordered an investigation into the role of battered woman syndrome expert testimony in the courts to determine its validity and usefulness. In 1997, they published the report of their investigation, titled The Validity and Use of Evidence Concerning Battering and Its Effects in Criminal Trials. “The federal report ultimately rejected all terminology related to the battered woman syndrome…noting that these terms were ‘no longer useful or appropriate’” (Rothenberg “Social Change” 782).[4] Instead of using the term "battered woman", the terminology “battering and its effects” became acceptable. The decision to change this terminology was based on a changing body of research indicating there is more than one pattern to battering and a more inclusive definition was necessary to more accurately represent the realities of domestic violence.

English law


In R v Ahluwalia (1992) 4 AER 889 a battered wife killed her violent and abusive husband. She claimed provocation and the judge directed the jury to consider whether, if she did lose her self-control, a reasonable person having the characteristics of a well-educated married Asian woman living in England would have lost her self-control given her husband's provocation. On appeal, it was argued that he should have directed the jury to consider a reasonable person suffering from 'battered woman syndrome'. Having considered fresh medical evidence, the Court of Appeal ordered a retrial on the basis that the new evidence showed an arguable case of diminished responsibility in English law.[5]

Similarly, in R v Thornton (No 2) (1996) 2 AER 1023 the battered wife adduced fresh evidence that she had a personality disorder and the Court of Appeal ordered a retrial considering that, if the evidence had been available at the original trial, the jury might have reached a different decision. The victim does not have to be in a position to carry out the threats immediately.[6]

In R v Charlton (2003) EWCA Crim 415, following threats of sexual and violent abuse against herself and her daughter, the defendant killed her obsessive, jealous, controlling partner while he was restrained by handcuffs, blindfolded and gagged as part of their regular sexual activity. The term of five years' imprisonment was reduced to three and a half years because of the terrifying threats made by a man determined to dominate and control the defendant's life. The threats created a genuine fear for the safety of herself and more significantly, her daughter, and this caused the defendant to lose control and make the ferocious attack.[7]

In HM's AG for Jersey v Holley (2005) 3 AER 371 the Privy Council regarded Smith as wrongly decided, interpreting the Act as setting a purely objective standard. Thus, although the accused's characteristics were to be taken into account when assessing the gravity of the provocation, the standard of self-control to be expected was invariable except for the accused's age and sex. The defendant and the deceased both suffered from chronic alcoholism and had a violent and abusive relationship. The evidence was that the deceased was drunk and taunted him by telling him that she had had sex with another man. The defendant then struck the deceased with an axe which was an accident of availability. Psychiatric evidence was that his consumption of alcohol was involuntary and that he suffered from a number of other psychiatric conditions which, independently of the effects of the alcohol, might have caused the loss of self-control and induced him to kill. Lord Nicholls said:

Whether the provocative acts or words and the defendant's response met the 'ordinary person' standard prescribed by the statute is the question the jury must consider, not the altogether looser question of whether, having regard to all the circumstances, the jury consider the loss of self-control was sufficient excusable. The statute does not leave each jury free to set whatever standard they consider appropriate in the circumstances by which to judge whether the defendant's conduct is 'excusable'.[8]


The Law Commission Report on Partial Defences to Murder (2004), rejects the notion of creating a mitigatory defence to cover the use of excessive force in self-defence but accepts that the "all or nothing" effect of self-defence can produce unsatisfactory results in the case of murder.[9] A battered woman, partner in a same-sex relationship or abused child using excessive force because he or she is physically at a disadvantage and not under imminent attack, would be denied a defence. It was always possible that the same set of facts could be interpreted as either self-defence or provocation where there was a loss of control resulting in death. Thus, the Commission recommends a redefinition of provocation to cover situations where a person acts lethally out of fear. This reflects the present view of psychiatrists that most people act in violent situations with a combination of fear and anger in their minds, and to separate the two emotions is not legally constructive.


In Australia, self-defence might be considered the most appropriate defence to a charge of murder for a woman who kills to protect her life or the lives of her children in a domestic violence context. It is about the rational act of a person who kills in order to save her (or his) own life.[10] But the lack of success in raising self-defence in Australia for battered women has meant that provocation has been the main focus of the courts[11] In 2005, based on the Victorian Law Reform Commission's Defences to Homicide: Final Report,[12] the Victorian government announced changes to the homicide laws in that jurisdiction, which are intended to address this perceived imbalance. Under the new laws, victims of family violence will be able to put evidence of their abuse before the court as part of their defence, and argue self-defence even in the absence of an immediate threat, and where the response of killing involved greater force than the threatened harm.[13]


In 1911 in Sault Ste. Marie, Angelina Napolitano, a 28-year-old, pregnant immigrant, killed her abusive husband Pietro with an axe after he tried to force her into prostitution.[14] She confessed and was sentenced to hang after a brief trial, but during the delay before the sentence was carried out (a delay necessary to allow her to give birth to her child), a public campaign for her release began.[15] Napolitano's supporters argued that the judge in the case had been wrong to throw out evidence of her long-standing abuse at Pietro's hands (including an incident five months before when he stabbed her nine times with a pocket knife).[15] The federal cabinet eventually commuted her sentence to life imprisonment.[15] She was the first woman in Canada to use the battered woman defense on a murder charge.[16]

The Supreme Court of Canada set a precedent for the use of the battered women defence in the 1990 case of R. v. Lavallee. [17]

New Zealand

In R v Fate (1998) 16 CRNZ 88 a woman who had come to New Zealand from the small island of Nanumea, which is part of the Tuvalu Islands, received a two-year sentence for manslaughter by provocation. Mrs. Fate spoke no English and was isolated within a small close-knit Wellington community of 12 families, so she felt trapped in the abusive relationship.[18]

Similarly, The Queen v Epifania Suluape (2002) NZCA 6, deals with a wife who pleaded provocation after she killed her husband with an axe when he proposed to leave her for another woman. There was some evidence of neglect, humiliation, and abuse but the court concluded that this was exaggerated. On appeal, the court was very conscious of the Samoan culture in New Zealand in restricting the power of the wife to act independently of her husband and reduced her sentence for manslaughter to five years.[19]

A report of the New Zealand Law Commission examines not only violence by men against women, but also violence by women against men and in same-sex relationships.[20]


  1. Herman, Judith (1992). Trauma and Recovery. London: Pandora.
  2. {{}}
  3. As ICD9 code 995.81 Battered person syndrome NEC
  4. Rothenberg, Bess. “’We Don’t Have Time for Social Change’ Cultural Compromise and the Battered Woman Syndrome.” Gender and Society Oct. 2003:771-87.
  5. R v Ahluwalia (1992) 4 AER 889.
  6. R v Thornton (No 2) (1996) 2 AER 1023.
  7. R v Charlton (2003) EWCA Crim 415.
  8. HM's AG for Jersey v Holley (2005) 3 AER 371.
  9. The Law Commission Report on Partial Defences to Murder (2004), Part 4 (pp. 78-86) found at
  10. See Osland v The Queen [1998] HCA 75 (10 December 1998) found at - cf R v Lavallee [1990] 1 SCR 852
  11. See Battered Women and Self Defence found at "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2005-07-19. Retrieved 2006-01-17.).
  12. Victorian Law Reform Commission's Defences to Homicide: Final Report, found at Victorian Law Reform Commission's Defences to Homicide: Final Report Archived December 30, 2005, at the Wayback Machine.
  13. The Age article.
  14. Platinum Image Film press release New Film About Italian Immigrant, March 13, 2006. Accessed June, 2008 via A Guide to Women in Canadian History
  15. 1 2 3 Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online: Angelina Napolitano. By Franca Iacovetta. University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2004. page accessed June 2008
  16. I just killed a pig by David Helwig., May 06, 2004. Online version accessed June, 2008.
  18. R v Fate (1998) 16 CRNZ 88.
  19. The Queen v Epifania Suluape (2002) NZCA 6(21 February 2002)
  20. Report of the New Zealand Law Commission on Some Criminal Defences with Particular Reference to Battered Defendants, report 73 (May 2001) found at New Zealand Law Commission Archived September 28, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.

Further reading

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