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The Criminalisation of Coercive Control

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.

In 2010, Richard Challen was bent over whilst eating the breakfast made by his wife, Sally Challen, when he was struck in the head with a hammer. Sally bludgeoned Richard with the hammer twenty times and stuffed a tea towel in his mouth in case he was still alive to stop him breathing.[1] She was later charged with murder of her husband in what was thought to be an unprovoked attack. In a surprising turn of events, in 2018 she was granted leave of appeal and in 2019 her sentence was lifted. This was only possible because of the criminalisation of coercive control.

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What is coercive control?

Coercive control is a pattern of abuse which may not include physical abuse. It is akin to mental chains being placed on (usually) a woman by her partner through threats and humiliation amongst other psychologically menacing tactics.

Evan Stark, the sociologist who coined the term, likened it to kidnapping, as the victim-

becomes captive in an unreal world created by the abuser, entrapped in a world of confusion, contradiction and fear.”[2]

It is dangerous because it is subtle, elusive and there are no scars or bruises. It was made a statutory criminal offence in 2015[3].

Sally Challen’s Story

Sally met Richard when she was young. There was a considerable age gap between the two as she was 15 and he was 22. He was the only man she had ever been with romantically, so she assumed his behaviour was normal. Over the course of their marriage, Sally suffered numerous humiliating moments at the hands of her husband. He often mocked her weight and appearance and cheated on her openly and relentlessly. A family friend, Jack Cowdy, recounted how Richard would send Christmas cards of himself with topless women to the dismay of Sally.[4]

Tackling Coercive Control

As it is impossible to spot physical effects of coercive control, we must all actively search for signs that the women we know are in emotionally abusive relationships. It is important to check on friends and family in order to protect them from partners who do not have good intentions. Sally’s story has offered new hope to domestically abused women convicted of killing their partners.[5]It is hoped that a growing understanding of non-physical domestic abuse will allow for the development of accurate sentences and increased protection for affected women.

Joshua Morka

Feature Writer

Criminal Law


[1] Anna Moore, 'I Miss Him So Much: Why Did a Devoted Wife Kill the Man She Loved?' The Guardian (29 September 2018) <> 25 December 2019.

[2] -, 'Coercive behaviour: How to tell if your partner's controlling you' BBC News (26 November 2018) <>3 January 2020.

[3] S. 76, Serious Crime Act 2015

[4] Moore (n 1)

[5] Jamie Doward, 'Women appeal against murder convictions after Sally Challen case' The Guardian (30 November 2019) <> 22 February 2020.

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