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What is the marriage coercion defence used by Vicky Pryce
3:06pm Thursday 7th March 2013 in News
The trial of Vicky Pryce shone a spotlight on the rarely used, century-old defence of marital coercion.
The defence, dating back to 1925, is available only to women, and only to those who are married, prompting some to brand it outdated and anachronistic.
It cannot be used by men, nor by women if they are not married.
And with legal gay marriage on the horizon, its future is uncertain, prosecutor Andrew Edis QC warned.
The defence is an anomaly from a different age, he told the court in legal submissions, and may not survive for much longer.
Marital coercion can only be used if a woman committed an offence because her husband was present and coerced her.
He must have been physically present, and to have put pressure on her so that her ''will was overborne'', and she was ''impelled to commit the offence'', believing she had no real choice.
It last hit the headlines when back-from-the-dead canoeist John Darwin's wife Anne said she was coerced into helping him in his scam - a claim rejected by the jury.
Regardless of the outcome, Pryce's case is likely to become a test case, debated in the Court of Appeal, as it has raised questions over the limits of the defence of marital coercion and who bears the burden of proof.
Previously the onus has been on the defendant to persuade the jury that they were coerced, but trial judge Mr Justice Sweeney ruled that the impact of human rights legislation meant the prosecution had to prove Huhne had not coerced Pryce.
But some experts think the defence has come to the end of its life and is outdated in a modern society.
The Law Commission suggested its abolition in 1977, but it remained a part of English law.
Mr Edis said: ''It is not unreasonable to approach this defence as an anomaly dating back to a different age.
''It is a defence which is still part of our law because in 1925 Parliament directed that it should be.
''That in itself is now nearly 100 years old and might even then have been regarded by some as an antiquated approach to the rights and responsibilities of citizens whether they are man or woman.
''Since 1925 there has been a seismic change in our society's approach to gender equality and to freedom of women in particular, whether within or outside marriage.
''The acknowledgement also of deeply important human relationships which do not result in marriage, including but not limited to civil partnerships and long-term cohabitation where the parties never marry.
''The idea that a person's criminal liability might depend on whether they are a man or a woman or whether they are in a marriage or a long-term cohabitation is to all modern sensibilities absurd.''
He said the defence could be coming to the end of its life, especially with the introduction of gay marriage on the horizon.
''The reality is that it probably has not got any life in it for the future because it is hard to see how it could survive any legislation to introduce gay marriage if the Parliamentary draftsmen have it in mind.
''It may be in the last year or so of its life.''
Professor Leslie Moran, professor of law at Birkbeck College, London, suggested the law should at least be modernised.
''It's seen as anachronistic that there should be some particular defence available to women and not just women, but women who are actually married,'' he said.
He said there may still be an argument for a legal defence that takes account of ''unequal domestic relationships'', including those where men are coerced by women, but it would need to apply to modern society.
''(Marital coercion) seems to be rather anachronistic in a modern world,'' he added.
''But if it's seen to be legitimate and there are good arguments, maybe it's time to modernise it.''