When Lady Justice Heather Hallett delivers her judgement in Sally Challen’s historic appeal tomorrow, her lawyer Harriet Wistrich will be hoping years of complex work pay off – and that she will walk free, having already served eight years of an 18-year sentence for murdering her husband, Richard in 2010.
It would be no mean feat: Wistrich is asking the Court of Appeal to set a groundbreaking precedent and downgrade Challen’s conviction from murder to manslaughter, on the grounds that Richard’s coercive and controlling behaviour was provocation – just as physical abuse can be.
“It’s a really important appeal in terms of violence against women,” says Wistrich. “Injustices arise because there isn’t an understanding of the whole context, power dynamic and history of relationships.”
Wistrich, 58, is no stranger to landmark – and controversial – cases. In her 25-year career as a lawyer, most recently for Birnberg Peirce & Partners, she has become a champion for women’s rights, setting precedents for victims of abuse. Last year, she was the lawyer who led the victims of black cab rapist John Worboys to victory in fights against the parole board, which had planned to release him after just eight years, and the police, whose failure to act on reports of rape and sexual assault was found to amount to negligence.
“Feminists have traditionally campaigned to reform the law, and worked with agencies to introduce better training and guidance,” she says. “I hold them to account in a hard way, through legal challenges.”
When we meet a couple of weeks before Challen’s appeal, Wistrich, dressed in black with short, spiky grey hair, is sipping coffee on the settee of her north London home, while her partner Julie Bindel, a radical feminist and writer, works at the kitchen table nearby. Unlike Bindel, well-known for being vocal and forthright, Wistrich prefers to focus on changing things through her case work. “I never get involved in Twitter rows, she says, “because it would be so distracting.”
Since 1991, when the couple co-founded Justice For Women, an advocacy organisation for women convicted of murdering abusive partners, she has helped more than a dozen, including Sara Thornton and Emma Humphries, whose murder convictions were both quashed in 1995 in light of new evidence of abuse, as well as Kiranjit Ahluwalia, whose 1992 case set a precedent that retaliation to abuse needn’t be immediate.
But Challen’s “is a strange story, even for me,” Wistrich admits.
In August 2010, after 31 years of marriage, Sally made her husband, Richard a final meal at their Surrey home, before hitting him in the head 20 times with a hammer, having just discovered he was cheating on her again. She was convicted of murder at Guildford Crown Court in June 2011 and sentenced to 22 years in prison, reduced to 18 on appeal.
“As someone who had never committed a criminal or violent act in her life and was then in her late 50s, such a long sentence seemed unjust and wrong,” says Wistrich. It was an undeniably violent act, but in similar circumstances, men have received lesser sentences. In 1996, David Hampson, who
killed his wife with a hammer and buried her in the back garden, was jailed for just six years after admitting manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, due to depression brought on by her “nagging”. “Women who commit violent acts are judged much more severely than men,” believes Wistrich, “because they’re seen somehow as unnatural.”
From the moment Challen wrote to Justice For Women in 2012 for help, Wistrich thought the case seemed “bizarre”. At trial, the mild-mannered mother of two was painted as a jealous wife who obsessively monitored her husband for signs of infidelity. “Her actions almost looked like [those of] the classic man who kills his wife,” says Wistrich. “But it didn’t fit with Sally’s life history and the facts of the relationship. It felt like there was something really wrong about the whole case.”
Wistrich soon discovered that what wasn’t brought up in Challen’s defence was the decades of abuse Richard had inflicted on her since they met when she was 15 and he 22. Among other things, he restricted her access to money, isolated her from friends and family, and repeatedly ‘gaslighted’ her - using mind games to make her doubt her sanity, as recently dramatised by the Helen and Rob storyline in The Archers. On holiday, after Richard saw her give a friend a peck on the cheek, Challen says, he anally raped her as punishment (Challen has waived her anonymity as a victim of sexual assault ahead of today’s appeal).
Much of his conduct was abhorrent, but not illegal. That was, until coercive and controlling behaviour was criminalised in 2015, which Wistrich hopes will be the key to Challen’s release. “In a sense it’s like fresh evidence,” she says. “The fact a law has been passed illustrates an advancement in our understanding of the dynamics of an abusive relationship.”
If the Court rules in Challen’s favour, it will be a wake-up call as to the pernicious effects of emotional abuse, which can escalate with fatal consequences. With one woman killed by their partner every three days, the urgency couldn’t be greater for Wistrich. “You need to intervene at an early stage,” she says. “The numbers of people killed in terrorist attacks, such as Manchester, are much lower than the number of women killed every year as a result of domestic terrorism. There should be a massive outcry.”
In the three decades since they founded Justice For Women, Wistrich and Bindel have watched women’s rights ebb and flow. “It’s very difficult to say things are much better than they were,” says Wistrich. “Once there’s no longer a light being shone on an issue, everything seems to go backwards.”
For example, treatment of rape victims has improved as awareness of sexual assault has risen, yet a growing number of cases are being dropped by police (known as ‘no further actioning’), and investigators are asking victims to turn over their entire digital history amid concerns over false accusations.
“Shortly after the parole board victory [against Worboys], Cressida Dick announced the Met Police were going to change their approach to investigating rape and stop being pro-belief when victims come forward,” says Wistrich. “That’s shocking. It’s a hugely traumatic process to go through a rape trial. False complaints are very rare and exceptional cases.”
Upcoming research into rape cases from the Centre For Women’s Justice (a charity Wistrich founded in 2016) and Rape Crisis, will show a “massive fall” in conviction rates. The situation has left Bindel feeling “quite despondent”, but Wistrich says there is hope in the fact that female voices of dissent are louder than they have been in years.
“The good news, if you like, is there is a huge movement among lots of young women following #MeToo and TimesUp,” she says. “They’re coming out and demanding their rights in a vociferous way.”
Success is by no means certain in Challen’s appeal, but with the nation watching, and Wistrich as her lawyer, she has the best chance possible of having her conviction downgraded to manslaughter – a move which her sons, and even members of Richard’s own family support.
There is always a lot at stake in Wistrich’s cases, for those she represents – and for her personally. “They’re always really, really painful decisions when the court rejects an appeal. It’s a huge blow,” says Wistrich, citing the case of Jane Andrews, former dresser of Sarah, Duchess of York, whose appeal against her conviction for murdering her abusive partner was rejected in 2006, although her sentence was reduced.
“Sally’s is a very hard argument and a difficult case,” she continues. “But we’ve done a huge amount of work and there’s a public mood swing, which I hope means the judges will consider it seriously.”