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The Battered Woman Defence: Examples and Rulings

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At what point can a female victim lawfully commit violence, including murder, against her assailant?

At what point can a female victim lawfully commit violence, including murder, against her assailant?

What Is the Battered Woman Syndrome Defence?

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 his client 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 Woman 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.

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 that her life and her daughter's life were in danger; nine times, the police did nothing.

According to a Globe and Mail editorial, 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 hitman to kill her husband. In an interview with CBC’s The Current, 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 undercover 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 that 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.”

What the Ruling Means

While the Supreme Court decision is being praised by womens' 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; and,
  • “Each year, only about 1,500 sexual assault offenders are actually convicted."

Bonus Facts

  • 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.
  • 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; it simply isn't true.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Rupert Taylor