Women charged and convicted of homicide offences in New South Wales

Criminology Research Council grant ; (13/78)

This research was co-funded by a matching grant from the Law Foundation of New South Wales. Two researchers were employed to carry out the research. The research was unusual in that data were obtained chiefly from interviews with the convicted women themselves. This information was then compared to and supplemented by a reading of the trial transcript and the solicitor's file on the case, where the woman consented to that course. In some cases the researchers were also able to interview the woman's lawyers.

The final report of the project, a document of 328 pages plus 43 pages of appendices, was submitted to the Council in April 1982. The researchers studied the cases of 35 women convicted of a homicide offence or acquitted of one on the grounds of mental illness. Most of the women were still detained in a gaol or mental hospital when interviewed. The 35 cases included 17 cases where women had killed their husbands or boyfriends, and 13 cases where women, mainly young women from extremely deprived or disturbed backgrounds, had killed or attacked non-family members. These two groups of cases are analysed in most detail. There were only four cases of women who had killed or attacked their own child in the study as a prison sample is biased against such cases.

The researchers found that the cases of women who killed husbands exhibited a striking pattern. Most of these women killed husbands or boyfriends who had beaten them before, often repeatedly over a period of years. They killed them in response to or in fear of yet another assault. The report sets out in detail the account these women gave of their lives with their husbands -the physical and emotional brutality they suffered, the anxiety and fear that trapped them in the marriage, the effects of the violence on their children.

As well as this detailed examination of the background to the homicides the report examines the women's feelings about their legal representation and their experiences in the courtroom. The report calls for greater representation of women by women lawyers and argues that all lawyers, men or women, should attempt to combat sexist attitudes which may damage the woman's case.

The report of the research has already had practical ramifications Legislation to change the law of homicide in New South Wales passed through Parliament in March 1982. The legislation abolishes the mandatory life sentence for murder and removes from the defence of provocation many of the historical anomalies that have limited its applicability to domestic homicides. This reform has been largely the result of extensive public discussion of the cases of women killing violent husbands. This research played a major role in generating and informing the public discussion. As well, the researchers were consulted by the members of the Attorney-General's Department considering proposals for reform and by the Premier's Task Force on domestic violence which in its report dated July 1981 also called for change to the law of homicide to better accommodate domestic homicides.