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The Battered Woman Defence

Updated on March 3, 2017
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In 1990, Canada’s Supreme Court created the so-called “battered woman syndrome” defence in the case of a woman who had killed her partner after years of beatings.

Angelique Lavallee shot and killed Kevin Rust during one of their many fights. Lavallee’s lawyer used psychiatric evidence to assert that she feared for her life and it was an either-him-or-me situation. The jury agreed with the accused and acquitted her. The acquittal was overturned on appeal and eventually ended up at the Supreme Court of Canada.

The Elizabeth Fry Society summarized the highest court’s decision: “… the effects of long term abuse (i.e. ‘Battered Women’s Syndrome’ (BWS)), may be heard by the judge and jury, where such information helps her show that she acted in self-defence. If successful, self-defence results in a finding of ‘Not Guilty.’ ”

Ms. Lavallee’s acquittal at trial was confirmed and the battered woman defence was established.

Courts in other countries have accepted the BWS defence that abused women can use force to the point of killing the abuser. Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States have agreed that sometimes women face life-threatening situations in which their only recourse is to kill to save their own lives.

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Contract to Kill

Nicole Ryan, a Nova Scotia teacher, suffered 17 years of abuse at the hands of her husband, Michael. There was physical violence, death threats, and frequent verbal abuse. Ms. Ryan went to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) nine times with fears the lives of herself and her daughter were in danger; nine times the police did nothing.

According to a Globe and Mail editorial (April 2011), Ms. Ryan said in the fall of 2007 that police told her “We don’t get involved in civil matters. It’s a family dispute.”

She ran into the same wall of indifference with victim services at the Nova Scotia Justice Department, which she contacted 11 times.

Desperate, Nicole Ryan tried to hire a hit man to kill her husband. In an interview with CBC’s The Current (January 21, 2013) she said that, because the authorities had refused to help her, the only option available to her was to have Michael Ryan killed before he killed her.

She made a couple of attempts to find someone willing to murder her husband before the police got wind of her actions. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) set up a sting in which Ms. Ryan offered $25,000 to an under-cover RCMP officer to do the job. She was arrested in 2008 and charged with counselling murder.

Ryan Acquitted at Trial

Nicole Ryan’s lawyers were unsure that the battered wife defence would hold up in the case of trying to get someone else to kill her abuser.

Kirk Makin wrote in The Globe and Mail Ms. Ryan’s “… trial lawyers opted for a novel approach: They asserted that she had been under extreme and sustained duress.”

In 2010, the trial judge acquitted Ms. Ryan and the Nova Scotia Appeal Court upheld that verdict. The Crown appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada. In January 2013, Mike Blanchfield reported for the Canadian Press that, “Technically, the Supreme Court granted the Crown appeal and overturned the acquittal, saying her defence of duress wasn’t valid.”

However, the Supreme Court stayed the charge against Ms. Ryan and blocked any further attempts to place her on trial. The justices also handed some heavy criticism to the RCMP for doing nothing about Michael Ryan’s violence towards his wife. The justices wrote “… it seems that the authorities were much quicker to intervene to protect Mr. Ryan than they had been to respond to her request for help in dealing with his reign of terror over her.”

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What the Ruling Means

While the Supreme Court decision is being praised by women’s advocates for its compassion towards Nicole Ryan it does put limits on the battered woman defence.

Kim Pate, Executive Director of the Elizabeth Fry Society, said “We still have a lack of clarity about the law of self-defence.

“It’s still not clear what would the next woman be able to do, to defend herself. Should she just be shot, herself? Should she be murdered and her child murdered with her?”

Elizabeth Sheehy is a University of Ottawa law professor. She told the Canadian Press that she’s bothered by the ruling: “The negative message for battered women is that your actions are going to have to fit within a legal box in order to be excused and that’s a worry.”

The Scale of Brutality

But the beating still goes on.

The Canadian Women’s Foundation has some startling figures:

  • “Half of all women in Canada have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16;
  • “67 percent of all Canadians say they personally know at least one woman who has been sexually or physically assaulted;
  • “On average, every six days a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner;
  • “On any given day in Canada, more than 3,300 women (along with their 3,000 children) are forced to sleep in an emergency shelter to escape domestic violence. Every night, about 200 women are turned away because the shelters are full;
  • “Each year, over 40,000 arrests result from domestic violence - that’s about 12 percent of all violent crime in Canada;
  • “Since only 22 percent of all incidents are reported to the police, the real number is much higher;
  • “According to the Department of Justice, each year Canadians collectively spend $7.4 billion to deal with the aftermath of spousal violence. This figure includes immediate costs such as emergency room visits and future costs such as loss of income. It also includes tangible costs such as funerals, and intangible costs such as pain and suffering;
  • “In a 2009 Canadian national survey, women reported 460,000 incidents of sexual assault in just one year; only about ten percent of all sexual assaults are reported to police; and,
  • “Each year, only about 1,500 sexual assault offenders are actually convicted."


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Bonus Factoids

Between 2001 and 2012, 6,488 American troops were killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. During the same period, 11,766 American women were murdered by current or former male partners.

In 2012, the Australian Bureau of Statistics interviewed 17,000 people aged 18 or over about their experiences with violence. One in six women and one in 20 men said they had experienced violence at the hands of their partners.

The story goes around that domestic violence spikes by 40 percent on Super Bowl Sunday, a time of heavy drinking and machismo. The claim is completely untrue and springs from a misreading of a study carried out by Old Dominion University sociology professor Janet Katz. It got its start in 1993 when a coalition of women’s groups held a news conference saying that Super Bowl Sunday is “the biggest day of the year for violence against women.” The claim has been endlessly repeated ever since.

Sources

  • Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, The Current.
  • “No New Trial for Woman who Hired Hit Man against Abusive Husband: Supreme Court.” Kirk Makin, Globe and Mail, January 18, 2013.
  • “The Police Should Have Heeded a Cry for Help.” Globe and Mail, August 23, 2012.
  • “The Facts About Violence Against Women.” Canadian Women’s Foundation, undated.
  • “30 Shocking Domestic Violence Statistics That Remind Us It’s An Epidemic.” Alanna Vagianos, Huffington Post, February 13, 2015.
  • “Fact file: Domestic Violence in Australia.” ABC News, April 14, 2016.
  • “Domestic Violence on Super Bowl Sunday.” Snopes.com, February 7, 2016.

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    • dashingscorpio profile image

      dashingscorpio 7 weeks ago

      I believe it's one thing to kill another during the heat of battle and another to premeditate and plan kill someone.

      That's time and brainpower that may have been used to getaway.

      Murder or killing someone should be the absolute last resort.

      In the state of Florida there is a case going on right now where an elderly guy was in a movie theatre and got into an argument with a younger man who was texting his baby sitter during the previews.

      Supposedly the old man yelled at him and the younger man stood up and threw a handful of popcorn in his face. The old man shot him to death. His defense is what Florida calls it's "Stand your ground" law.

      Essentially if you're faced with danger or feel threatened you are not obligated to attempt to avoid it or walk away.

      The old man claims he feared for his life in that moment.

      How can a judge or jury know whether or not his reaction was the result of fear or his angry ego coupled with licensed to carry a concealed weapon?

      There needs to be some serious investment made on studying why anyone would put up with a single incident of domestic violence let alone stay in situation like that for several years.

      Generally speaking there are some "red flags" such as observing the abuser explode at others or destroying property, yelling/cursing over something insignificant. It's usually just a matter of time before he/she turns that anger towards their mate.

      Verbal abuse is to physical abuse as foreplay is to sex.

      One usually happens before the other.

      The first time one witness someone throw an item across the room, kick a chair, or punch a hole in the wall is more than enough a sign to get out!

      Another under reported crime is domestic violence against men. Many are too embarrassed to tell anyone let alone police.

      In fact more times than not when a woman hits a man for simply making a rude comment some people feel she's "justified". No one would say a man is justified for hitting a woman because she (said) something he did not like.

      It's as if a woman hits a man it's a "comedy" and if a man hit's a woman it's a tragedy. No one should be hitting anyone!!!

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 7 weeks ago from England

      I think all women should be protected and allowed to protect themselves from this awful abuse, specially over many years. I don't think they should be allowed pre meditated murder, but spur of the second to protect yourself should be obviously allowed.

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 7 weeks ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      Rupert.....Thank you for this well-written & educational Hub on a very serious & shameful issue, which quite sadly, is Universal. Of course the overall scenario varies starkly from one part of the world to another. As we have all come to realize, the blatant horror of this issue is no more evident than in countries, particularly the Middle East. In so many of these twisted and fanatically-directed ideological countries, it is not even perceived as "abuse" but as a man's right and a woman's curse. Beating, stoning, whipping, torturing and even killing women is an every day occurrence as though women are less valuable than animals.

      Here in America, it defies simple logic that however much effort and change have taken place, domestic abuse continues to remain a shameful strike against us, for which we must continue to struggle

      forward. Yes, it must be noted that in fewer cases, it is a fact that men are the victims of this abuse, as well

      During the tenure of my career, there were several periods of time when I needed to take on an Instructor's position for week-long seminars & tutorials for women. It was during those periods that I realized the urgent need for women to be taught, encouraged & supported in their abilities to safely escape the egregious situations & conditions that place them in enormous danger.

      We should not and cannot sit idly by while women are ignored, pushed aside and left to resort to unthinkable means to free themselves form imminent dangers.

      I applaud your work here and appreciate your concern on behalf of all victims of abuse. Peace, Paula

    • Rupert Taylor profile image
      Author

      Rupert Taylor 7 weeks ago from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

      Dashingscorpio,Nell, and Paula I am acutely and sadly aware of this terrible scourge. In researching this article I was close to tears many times in part because of the near helpless suffering of women and in part because of my inability to stop it. When I read that "a woman is beaten every nine seconds in America I conclude a great sickness stalks the land. Obviously, it's not just the U.S., and women in such places as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere face the possibility of being victims of "honour" killings. I brought my sons up to honour women as equals; if I learned that one of them had raised his hand in anger against an intimate partner I would be devastated and that young man would never again be part of my life.

    • profile image

      Jess 5 weeks ago

      This is so bad first you should never choose a guy that does that stuff NEVER

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