So we finally have the verdict in the Vicky Pryce trial following on from the guilty verdict of her husband Chris Huhne ex-MP.
She was not successful in the end, after one failed trial when the jury could not reach a verdict, in using the rare defence of ‘marital coercion’ to a charge of perverting the course of justice in relation to their jointly saying that she was driving the car when in fact he was, to avoid him losing his licence due to excess speeding points. Chris Huhne himself had already admitted the offence.
Amazingly the by-election for Chris Huhne’s Eastleigh seat had been done and dusted before the legal cases were over. What a drama it was! In fact in many ways a classical Greek drama involving the tragedy and revenge of a marriage and hubris of a politician who thought he could escape the law
The case is fascinating from many legal perspectives too, including the infamous 10 questions which the first jury asked the judge and which reignited a debate about the effectiveness of juries. But that would be a separate blog’s worth. Here I just want to ask: what exactly is ‘marital coercion?’
The defence has deep historical roots: the common law defence was replaced by section 47 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925.
There is a defence of duress, which can be put forward to exonerate a defendant from many crimes. But it requires a threat to cause serious harm to the Defendant to have caused him/her to commit the crime in question. Conversely, whilst ‘coercion’ is not defined in the statute, it is clearly wider than this. P J Pace in an article in the Criminal Law Review in 1982 said it would include ‘threats (by a husband) to take the children away from the wife, to commit adultery, to bring his mistress into the marital home, or to bring the children up in a religion different from his wife’s.’
Is the defence of marital coercion appropriate in today’s world? After all, whilst the defence was originally invented to protect wives, it arose from a time when this protection was needed because of the unequal status of wives in the first place – from an age where a wife was a husband’s chattel more or less but also from the ‘Age of Chivalry’. The Law Commission, the statutory independent body created by the Law Commissions Act 1965 to keep the law under review and to recommend reform where it is needed, has previously proposed its abolition. This view would be supported by the argument that any coercive influences upon a defendant should be mitigation for the crime (and thus be reflected in the court’s sentence) but should not exonerate the defendant from a guilty verdict. Alternatively, should the defence of coercion be extended to cover other relationships, not just marriage e.g. civil partnerships and even employment relationships? Indeed as to the former, there may be a discrimination argument that it should, if the defence is to survive.
As a final note, in civil law, the law is different and firmly established. There is the principle of ‘undue influence’ which can be used as a defence to several legal obligations that might otherwise arise, for instance from documents signed, and the relationships where undue influence can arise are much wider than marriage.
Anthony Wooding | Managing Partner
Head of Litigation Department, Kerseys