British campaigners, politicians call for United Kingdom to follow in New Zealand's footsteps making non-fatal strangulation offence

"It's not about intending to kill, it's about terrorising into submission."
"It's not about intending to kill, it's about terrorising into submission." Photo credit: Getty.

Campaigners want England and Wales to follow in New Zealand's footsteps by creating a specific criminal offence for non-fatal strangulation. 

In 2018, the Family Violence (Amendments) Act was passed in Aotearoa, making "strangulation or suffocation" a new, specific family violence offence with a maximum penalty of seven years' imprisonment. That change came after a 2016 report from the Law Commission which detailed the physical and psychological impact on victims. 

Politicians and advocates are hoping to make a similar change in England and Wales, with former Victims' Commissioner Baroness Helen Newlove on Wednesday saying she wants to table an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill in the House of Lords.

Attempts to have a new offence added to the Bill failed in the Commons and the government has no plans to change the law. The local Ministry of Justice said it was a serious crime already covered by the likes of common assault and attempted murder. 

The current Victims' Commissioner Dame Vera Baird supports making a change. She says common assault doesn't reflect the magnitude of the offence while non-fatal strangulation was often used as a means of control and intimidation rather than an attempt at murder. 

"It's not about intending to kill, it's about terrorising into submission," she said. "This is a crime which has massive consequences, and is a hugely powerful weapon, but has no place in the current criminal lexicon."

Centre for Women's Justice lawyer Nogah Ofer told The Guardian that strangulation is undercharged. 

"Although it’s a really terrifying and serious form of violence, there is often not a physical mark, or just a red mark - so police officers routinely treat it as common assault - the equivalent to a slap"

Advocacy group We Can't Consent To This shared research in December which found up to 10 percent of the population have experienced strangulation, rising to 50 percent among women subject to routine domestic abuse and 20 percent of women who have been sexually assaulted. It also found if a woman has been strangled, their chance of being murdered rises eightfold.

Baroness Newlove.
Baroness Newlove. Photo credit: Getty.

During a House of Lords debate on Wednesday, there was cross-party support for considering non-fatal strangulation in the Bill. 

Baroness Lorely Burt of the Liberal Democrats said non-fatal strangulation was a "shocking and horrific means of abuse, designed to terrify and achieve compliance in victims" with few visible external signs.

"This must be recognised as a distinct offence in its own right so that it is treated sufficiently seriously by police and prosecutions and not just prosecuted as an assault. It is far more serious than that."

Baroness Gabrielle Bertin of the Conservatives mentioned New Zealand in her contribution. 

"Non-fatal strangulation is far more serious than common assault and is a genuine red flag to murder. It should never be trivialised or ignored. 

"New Zealand has already introduced it as a stand-alone offence, which is beginning to make a difference in levels of charging and understanding among police, the wider justice system and medical teams."

Other Peers highlighted the leadership New Zealand showed and noted the Law Commission report as being "extremely well-argued and set out".

The BBC reports that other campaigners are also pointing to New Zealand and some parts of Australia and the United States where the change has been made.

The 2016 Law Commission report said strangulation was known to "be very common" and that the harm caused by it "ranges from struggling to breathe to loss of consciousness, to death". 

"The psychological impact on victims can be devastating. It is often said that, while the abuser may not be intending to kill, he is demonstrating that he can kill. 

"It is unsurprising that strangulation is a uniquely effective form of intimidation, coercion and control."

The two key factors distinguishing it from other forms of family violence were that it is "an important risk factor for a future fatal attack" and that it typically leaves few marks or signs. 

A Cabinet paper from then-Justice Minister Amy Adams, who asked for the report and made the first moves to create new legislation, said making a strangulation offence would "shift the justice sector response to strangulation towards a focus on the prevention of future serious harm". 

"We know that non-fatal strangulation is a significant risk factor for future fatal attacks and is commonly used by perpetrators as a form of coercive control to enforce victim’s compliance," the paper says.

"However, perpetrators of non-fatal strangulation are not always held to account for the severity of this behaviour. I propose to introduce a new offence of non-fatal strangulation, and to ensure that it is recorded as such on an offender’s criminal record."

It was reported last year that after the new offence came into effect police launched proceedings for an average of five cases of non-fatal strangulation or suffocation each day.