Last week we discussed the codified version of the common law defence of duress or, as it is know in the Code, “Compulsion By Threats.” This week, we have a section, also concerned with compulsion but the specific compulsion, which may arise as a result of marriage. Section 18 faces this possibility and states as follows:
No presumption arises that a married person who commits an offence does so under compulsion by reason only that the offence is committed in the presence of the spouse of that married person.
This section is saying that the criminal law does not presume that a person who commits an offence in the presence of a spouse has been compelled to do the criminal act merely by virtue of their relationship. Immediately, one speculates on why it is the marriage relationship singled out in this fashion. Why does the section not speak to the parent/child relationship, which is also a strong bond between two people or even a sibling relationship? The answer lies in the original version of this section and although the present iteration seems benign enough, the historical version, on today’s standards, is much more contentious.
The section was in the original 1892 Code under the then section 13 and was entitled “Compulsion of Wife.” The section was, as you probably guessed, based on gender stereotypes as it held that “no presumption shall be made that a married woman committing an offence does so under compulsion because she commits it in the presence of her husband.” This one-sided notion was changed to gender-neutral language in the 1980 Code amendments. But this still does not explain why this section was codified in the first place.
As I explained in previous podcasts, there are many common law defences available to an accused and still available through s. 8(3). I have talked about the major types of defences that are regularly used today – such as justifications and excuses and the defence of mistake of fact. However, there are other common law defences, which are not regularly used such as the defence of de minimus non curat lex. This translates to the “the law does not concern itself with trifles” and has been used in many different kinds of scenarios such as in theft cases where the subject matter value and/or the criminal actions are trivial. Leaving that aside, there are, as I said, other common law defences and the defence of marital coercion is just one such common law defence.
The defence, if successful, exonerated a woman of criminal responsibility for criminal acts carried out in the presence of her husband on the reasoning that the wife unquestionably obeys her husband and therefore has no choice but to commit the criminal offence. She is not acting under her own volition and therefore should be excused for her conduct. It is a defence that inures only to the benefit of the married woman as in common law the husband is not so duty bound. Although the defence appears to be very similar to the defence of duress there are differences in application. The accused must be the legal wife of the husband in question and therefore legally married at the time. Even an accused who has an honest but mistaken belief of marriage cannot use the defence. There is some case law in the United Kingdom, which also suggest that the coercion need not be physical but can be moral and psychological as well.
Although this common law defence, in a modified form, is still in use in the United Kingdom (the defence cannot be used for murder or treason, see Section 47 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925), section 18 of the Criminal Code abrogates that defence. As we discussed in earlier episodes, common law defences are only available unless they are “altered by or inconsistent with” the Criminal Code and thus the defence of marital coercion, be it husband or wife, is not available. Even so, this does not preclude the accused person from raising the defence of duress, either under the common law or under s.17 as applicable.
As an aside, there is a move to abolish the defence in the UK as a result of the 2013 Pryce case. Vicki Pryce, a well-known government economist, raised the defence in her trial of perverting the course of justice when, at the behest of her then husband, she lied to the police that she was driving the family car allowing her husband to avoid demerit points. The use of the defence in this case, caused an outrage in British society, particularly in light of Pryce’s elevated position in the government. She and her husband were convicted and sentenced to eight months incarceration. Just recently, the UK government announced plans to abolish the defence.