Thursday 28 January 2021
How an unprecedented legal case could change the way the courts approach domestic abuse.
Louise: Well lovely to see you again. I got a message from you to say ‘get in touch’, so hello, hi, what have you got to tell me?
Julie: Well I thought I better give you the update, can you hear me okay?
Louise: I can hear you fine
Julie: Perfect, thought I better give you the update, because yesterday was four years since…
It is four years since the funeral of Katie Wilding, Julie’s daughter.
Her three other daughters are moving through their twenties, the older two have children, Emma, on whose birthday Katie died, she goes travelling… explores the world – everyone is growing up…
But those four years have been tightly focused for Julie.
She’s been pushing for Katie’s death to be recognised as a homicide – no matter what the police and coroner said.
She’s been pushing for what’s known as a Domestic Homicide Review. This is an independent inquiry into how all the agencies who had contact with a domestic abuse victim dealt with them before their death.
A Domestic Homicide Review would look into the police and what they did to protect Katie before she died, and their actions after they found Katie’s body in Mitchell Richardson’s flat.
After every domestic abuse related death, a DHR, as they’re known, is the one big chance for everyone to learn from mistakes.
But Julie just keeps being knocked back. This wasn’t a homicide, everyone keeps insisting.
But then, suddenly, she rings me at the end of 2020. And she’s elated.
Finally, there’s been a breakthrough….
Julie: And quite amazingly they have told us that they are going to turn our Domestic Abuse Related Death Review into a full Domestic Homicide Review, something we have been fighting and fighting for. They’ve refused us three times. They told us there was no learning from this. But…
Louise: They said it, they said it wasn’t a homicide so why a Domestic Homicide Review? But they’ve completely about turned!
Julie: Completely 100%. And, it’s a horrible thing, it’s a real juxtaposition to be in because nobody wants to be in this position, but it’s joyous news because we’ve been fighting…I’m going to get emotional again. We’ve been fighting so hard to give Katie the status that she deserves. And out of the blue…
For Julie, this means everything.
It is not an answer in its own right, but it is a step towards the answers she wants: what did the police get wrong? How could they learn to do things better?
Like with the Skeltons at the moment they convinced the police, finally, to investigate their daughter’s death as murder, this is a brief, complex moment of joy in an otherwise gruelling fight.
And speaking of the Skeltons, well – they are still on the road to getting police to acknowledge responsibility for failing to protect their daughter Susan. They’re still waiting for a date for when an Article 2 inquest into Susan’s death will start, after the High Court gave the green light in the autumn.
Two families, and two police forces being forced to answer questions on how and why their daughters died, when the risk to their lives should have been so obvious, so clear…
I’m Louise Tickle and you’re listening to Hidden Homicides, a podcast series by Tortoise Media.
In this episode, I’m going to tell you about an unprecedented legal case – and a truly astonishing prosecutor. It’s a case that could completely change how we think about the scale of hidden homicides. It’s about suicide, and whether a domestic abuser can be held criminally accountable when someone takes their own life.
If you haven’t heard the first three episodes of this series, do go back and listen to them if you can. And I’ll just remind you: this episode includes distressing details of violence, coercion and controlling behaviour against women. Some of it is really difficult to listen to.
It also contains discussion of suicide. If you’re affected by the issues we talk about here, there are places that can help and we’ve put some of them on our website – tortoisemedia.com/hiddenhomicides. And we also list places you can call at the end of this podcast.
I want to take you back to 2006.
A man had just escaped prosecution after he was accused of the manslaughter of a woman called Gurjit Dhaliwal.
Gurjit was a mother of two sons, described after her death as a bubbly, hardworking and loving woman. She had taken her own life the year before in 2005.
But, she’d kept a diary. And in that diary she’d detailed multiple incidents of psychological abuse and violence by her partner.
The Crown Prosecution Service tried to prosecute her husband for manslaughter – they tried to criminally connect his abusive behavior with her suicide. It was remarkable – it was the first attempt of its kind.
But an Old Bailey judge, and eventually the appeal court ruled that no, the man could not be held ‘criminally liable’ for his wife’s death.
And then, just over 10 years later, it seemed like history was about to repeat itself.
[Clip: Police saying “We did not understand the impact Nicholas Allen was having on Justene. We did not listen to her as a victim. We didn’t understand truly her vulnerability and we should have helped her more.”]
In early 2017, 46 year old Justene Reece took her own life.
Before her death, she had reported 34 incidents of abusive behaviour to the police.
She’d even gone to court to get an injunction, something called a ‘non-molestation order’ – to stop her ex-partner, Nicholas Allen, from contacting her or coming to her house.
She didn’t have a lawyer, so she represented herself, which is incredibly brave – but… Nicholas Allen didn’t take any notice, he breached the order. Seven times. Justene reported the breaches, but a senior officer decided to take no action to arrest Allen – it was, Justene was told, her responsibility too, to uphold a non-molestation order, and unfortunately, she’d agreed to meet him in a pub.
I have to say, the lack of understanding shown there by a senior police officer of how a victim of domestic abuse might be coerced, or even intimidated into doing what their abuser demands just… floors me.
After her death, and on looking at Justene’s phone, social media and crucially, finally beginning to link their own disparate records of her reporting abuse to police, the Staffordshire force finally began to realise the enormity of what Nicholas Allen had done to Justene.
And at that point, the team looking at her death went to the Crown Prosecution Service and said: ‘could there be a holding charge so Allen could be held on remand?’
That would give them time to look at other evidence while protecting the public from this man…
Hannah: This particular case, it was a very slow burn set of circumstances whereby due to the deterioration in the relationship between Justene and Nicholas Allen. It had deteriorated to the point where she felt that she had no way out from the relationship other than to take this drastic and tragic step.
So essentially the prosecution was brought about on the basis that she had committed suicide as a result, and a direct result, of his actions and his behaviour towards her.
This is Hannah Sidaway.
She’s a Specialist Prosecutor for the Crown Prosecution Service in the West Midlands. And right now, like virtually every civil servant in an office job, she’s working from home, which is where I talk to her, via Zoom.
She’s known for working on complex, difficult cases. And let me tell you right now: she is impressive.
Hannah: When I started to conduct the legal research, I found that there were a few cases, not many, where the possibility of charging manslaughter, where a victim had taken their own life, had been discussed. And that the judges had made relevant comments as to certain criteria, which would apply that may make such a charge possible. And it was a very tough set of circumstances.
What Hannah was attempting to achieve was unprecedented…
Hannah: I haven’t yet heard of any other successful prosecutions. Your listeners may correct me if I’m wrong, where somebody has been charged effectively with a manslaughter offence in these similar circumstances where somebody has taken their own life.
But history was against her. That failed case in 2006 – the one concerning the death of Gurjit Dhaliwal – it had only been a decade earlier.
Sure, our understanding of domestic abuse has progressed since then. But there had still been no successful convictions for manslaughter following a suicide
And that’s because it’s a really difficult and complex thing to prove. As a prosecutor, she told me, you have to be confident that you can show a direct line of responsibility from the accused to the victim’s decision to take their life. Beyond reasonable doubt. And obviously, you can’t ask the victim, because they’re dead.
Which makes Hannah Sidaway even more remarkable.
Hannah: So what we did was we compiled a dossier of all the relevant materials to send to our experts. Now that’s perhaps what makes this case different to others that have come before in that there were friends and families who had made statements, documenting the extreme deterioration in Justene’s condition, in her physical appearance, in her mental health…
She managed to demonstrate that Nicholas Allen had subjected Justene Reece to a “sustained campaign of torment” – that’s a quote. And that this campaign had caused a psychological injury that was solely responsible for her decision to kill herself.
[Clip: News report about Nicholas Allen’s sentencing]
Hannah had set a new precedent.
And in doing so, she had had a huge impact on how we understand domestic abuse.
If Hannah was able to convince a court that a man was criminally responsible for causing death by suicide, that means that other men could be prosecuted too.
And this is massive, because we know that women who experience domestic abuse are more likely to attempt suicide.
Now, the data on suicides is tricky – of course it is – and, unfortunately, it’s really out of date. But this is the best we have: in 2004 a report commissioned by the government estimated that, every day, almost 30 women attempt to take their own life as a result of domestic abuse. And each week, it estimated that 3 women do kill themselves as a result of domestic abuse. Domestic abuse reporting has increased since then, so it seems likely that those rates could be even higher – and higher still for Black and Asian women.
This whole series, this whole investigation, has been about counting the true toll of domestic abuse – and here, we’re talking about a legal precedent that could add scores of cases to the count.
Hannah: When he sentenced him, the judge commented that Mr. Allen clearly caused Justene Reece to lose her life. And before that to experience over a protracted period of time what must have been a living nightmare. The Judge commented that it isn’t suggested that Nicholas Allen intended for Justene to die.
But that there was a clear intention that she should suffer serious psychological harm. And he concluded that Justene Reece had committed suicide as a direct result of the sustained and determined criminal actions that his hand, which he knew, were having a profound effect on her.
The case was complex and unique.
Hannah Sidaway was supported by a police force that was suddenly motivated to find evidence, pursue leads, and protect the public from a dangerous man.
A huge and concerted effort was made to secure the standard of evidence needed to prosecute Nicholas Allen, and get him put away.
This case puts into stark relief the key patterns we have talked about throughout this series. Failures to share and connect information on domestic abuse: Staffordshire police failed to do this for Justene before she died, but actively worked together to understand the enormity of what she had endured after her death. They treated Justenes death – a very obvious suicide – as a homicide. They collected evidence, they worked closely with the CPS, they grasped hold of this case.
Staffordshire Police’s actions to bring Allen to justice will have protected other women. They learned from their mistakes. It can’t have been easy.
These changes are vital, if that prosecution against Nicholas Allen is not to be a one-off – if others are to be convicted too.
Hannah: I think that using cases such as this is a good springboard to put that message out so that other people can watch out for these danger signs and can seek intervention before it’s tragically too late. In this case, when it was allocated to me, I would say that the police, the barristers and myself worked really collaboratively to ensure that the best evidence was obtained to lead to the best possible outcome. The police were extremely professional and enthusiastic in pursuing all lines of inquiry, essentially. And they were intent from the outset that this wasn’t just a stalking case whereby it had gone tragically wrong.
They knew that there was something underlying this of great seriousness. And I think when they first approached me, their intention was to protect and safeguard other potential victims.
As for our investigation. We had made a decision early on not to include suicides with a known background of domestic abuse. We felt it was going to be difficult to delve into, and guidelines from the Samaritans make it clear that suicide is complex and rarely due to a single cause.
We also knew that finding data was going to be difficult.
But speaking to Hannah, it’s clear: suicides can be legally, criminally, linked to domestic abuse. And the judge who sentenced Allen agreed, saying he had “clearly caused” Justene to commit suicide and made her life “a living nightmare”.
He told Allen that Justene, and this is a quote, “committed suicide as a direct result of your sustained and determined criminal actions – actions which you clearly knew were having a profound effect upon her.”
And if this direct link can now be made, this means we have to now ask the question: how many suicides caused by domestic abuse are going uninvestigated, and uncounted, too?
Jane Monckton Smith, the expert criminologist we have relied on so much for this series, says that number could be frighteningly high… and it could transform how we understand this issue completely.
Jane Monckton Smith: What’s difficult to do is try and guess or estimate what those actual numbers might be. So if we were to consider, for example, all domestic abuse related deaths, and that would include suicides, and we have had convictions for abusers pushing people to suicide. We could be tripling, quadrupling the numbers…
Now, I know that this series has been hard, and harrowing, and at times almost unbearable to listen to. I know there are moments when Julie, or Caramella, or the Skeltons’s stories just hit you in the gut.
But there are some positives – and Hannah’s prosecution is just one of them.
So I want to stay with a bit of hope for a bit longer.
[Clip: Announcement in Parliament on 6 July 2020, “Rarely have I seen a third reading conclude with everybody being so satisfied and pleased at the result. So the question is that the Bill be now read a third time. The ‘Ayes’ have it, the ‘Ayes’ have it.”]
In July, it was the final reading of a historic piece of legislation, the last stage in the House of Commons before that legislation headed over to the Lords to then become law.
The Domestic Abuse Bill.
The Bill is important because it cements the first ever statutory definition of what domestic abuse actually is.
[Clip: Description of the impact of the Domestic Abuse Bill]
And even more importantly: as part of that definition, it includes different kinds of abuse that are now being recognised.
We’re not just talking about violence, or coercive and controlling behaviour. We’re talking about things like emotional abuse, and economic abuse – things like restricting someone’s access to money, or exploiting them, or sabotaging their ability to make a living.
This is a big deal.
Because if the understanding of domestic abuse is becoming more sophisticated well… that means many more women could be protected by police and other public authorities.
That could have really important real-world effects. At the extreme end, it could mean that domestic abuse killings – like those of Caroline Devlin, or Susan Nicholson – could be more easily prevented in future.
The Bill will hopefully come into law this year.
So, forgive me for being a little hopeful at this point.
With the case brought by Hannah Sidaway, the frontiers on domestic abuse are shifting.
But, it’s a short lived moment.
And I know, sorry… that was cruelly short.
Because despite the attempts of campaigners, suicide – among other things – isn’t currently reflected in the Bill. And anyway, none of this resolves the issues I have uncovered along the way, of missed opportunities, missed investigations and poor policing. Homicides will continue to be hidden until we fundamentally change how police and coroners approach domestic abuse.
That’s something I spoke to Dame Vera Baird about. Dame Vera is the national Commissioner for Victims, a former barrister, a former Labour MP… and finally, she was a police and crime commissioner. She is a force of nature and knowledge, a woman with power who has fought for victims of domestic abuse her whole career.
Dame Vera Baird: There’s still a big, big, big undervaluing of domestic abuse amongst policing at all. But, casting the net more broadly to bring in the family of somebody who thinks their daughter would never have committed suicide and so on, I feel that that’s an extra factor why they’re not taken on.
They should be looked at as a close witness who can give all kinds of accounts of why they think that, and that could give rise to all kinds of lines of investigation to see if there’s anything in it. But the tendency is to think that it’s an over-emotional response, you know, by a kind of understandably disturbed parent or sister.
I think that getting that understanding that a person who’s either suffered domestic abuse, and anybody who knows it at all, or alternatively, even if it’s not known of, if it’s a domestic death, you need to go and look for it. All of those should be dealt with as homicides until the investigating officer who needs to be somebody well-versed in domestic abuse, coercive control and how it works, until that person can go to the Supervisor and say, I’ve done it as far as I can take it and I’m sure it’s not a homicide now.
And I think if that approach were taken, because it’s that golden hour, when there’s a sudden death, people or police are called out and they think, oh, it’s a suicide. And the man comes and says, my goodness, you know, I’m sure she’s killed herself. And we’ve got your manipulative, domestic abuse person in play and the die is cast. You know there and then the die is cast.
Those assumptions made at the scene are why so many deaths go uninvestigated. And, I think, are reflected in the patchy data a lot of police forces hold.
Patricia Clarke: We’ve had some successful ones. We got a successful one today and we’ve had a lot of rejections.
Some are just really rude and some are sort of rejections ‘plus plus’, you know where they’re like, explained question by question. I think that for the longest time this data project felt like it was just such a big muddle in my brain, in all of our brains. we just thought how, how this, this data is so confusing. And now it’s so clear to me that the problem is this lack of data sharing. This lack of data sharing on a, on a big level in terms of sharing between GPs and hospitals and police forces, but also internally, also regionally also nationally.
I mean the FOIs are quite open about that. Some of them will say we’ve got the system but it’s not centralised, we have no way of looking at a specific victim and whether they had a DA marker unless we go in and do it manually. It’s a systemic problem.
Patricia, the data journalist who has helped me with the freedom of information requests sent to the police, has found their responses… frustrating.
Remember: we asked every force in the country how many of the women they had on record as being abused by a partner had died in sudden, or unexplained circumstances, over the past five years. And we asked, how many of those deaths were investigated as homicides? That would leave us with a figure for how many hadn’t been.
We also asked – in the last five years, how many women with flags against their name for domestic abuse have gone – and still are – missing?
But here’s what we learned: there is no coordination in how police forces hold data, and so currently there is no accurate way to measure the scale of the problem.
So, if like me, this series and these stories have left you feeling enraged, and upset, and determined that women’s lives have to count for more, please join me in calling for real, meaningful change.
Because one of the most powerful things about doing this kind of journalism, of spending months trying to understand a hidden problem, is you come out of it knowing better what needs to be fixed.
And this is what we’ve come up with:
First, police officers need to change how they approach this – from the moment they step on the scene of death.
When police arrive at a sudden or unexplained death, where there’s a known history of domestic abuse, they need to treat it as a homicide and investigate it as a homicide.
That means: secure the scene, collect evidence, and have an automatic forensic post mortem, not the standard, cheaper sort.
Second, give those first police on the scene the tools they need to find out, quickly, whether the deceased is known to be a victim of domestic abuse.
Remember – only 18% of abuse victims report to police. So that means agencies need to share information – GP, Accident and Emergency, social services, housing. Let that officer who arrives at the scene get out their iPad, or tablet, whatever, and be able to access immediate brief details of any domestic abuse information held across databases.
And then any decision not to pursue a homicide investigation should be taken by a senior officer, who has experience and expertise in domestic abuse.
And finally, let’s start counting. Properly, counting. We need to know how many victims of domestic abuse are dying suddenly, or in unexplained circumstances, and aren’t being classed as homicides. How many domestic abuse victims are missing? How many who kill themselves have a background of domestic abuse? We need to know. A national number, counted every year.
And that brings me back to Patricia, the data journalist on our team.
We didn’t get an answer to our question. Not a comprehensive national one, at least. And we’re going to keep working on that…
But we found a different story. We got a new lead.
Louise: What about the answers that we’re getting to our kind of crucial question, which is how many sudden unexpected deaths or unexplained deaths of women have there been, which have had domestic abuse markers, but which haven’t been classed as homicides?
Patricia: So we’ve had… North Wales has 15…
Louise: In the last five years?
Louise: Okay, so three a year…
Patricia: Yeah that, that is high. And that’s much higher than the others which were around two, a couple of zeroes, and one is just one…
It is a question I’m going to stick with.
Why are so many victims of domestic abuse in North Wales dying in sudden, unexplained ways, but not being investigated as homicides?
It’s a new way in to investigating this problem.
Already, since we published the first episodes of this podcast, I’ve been contacted by relatives and friends of domestic abuse victims who they fear died in hidden homicides – and told about living victims who they fear still might. The stories of Katie and Susan and others are not done yet.
Mother: I know it’s important, but dear God this is a life we’re talking about and they didn’t request anything for Sarah…nothing.
Really we’ve only just begun…
Thank you for listening to this episode – and this series. If you’d like to read more about our reporting, or about any issues we’ve raised – go to tortoisemedia.com/hiddenhomicides.
This episode was reported by me, Louise Tickle and additional reporting was by Claudia Williams and Patricia Clarke. It was produced by Matt Russell. The editor was Basia Cummings, with original music by Tom Kinsella.
If you’ve been affected by anything in this podcast, you can call the Samaritans for help on 116 123, or contact the charity Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse; the address is www.aafda.org.uk