Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) and Sentencing Event – 29 March 2023 – Nottingham Law School

By Gavin Dingwall, Senior Research Fellow and Sarah McManus, Director of Operations

The Sentencing Academy was delighted to host this event with Nottingham Trent University. Gavin Dingwall, Senior Research Fellow at the Academy, comments that ‘Nottingham Law School has recognised expertise in sentencing research and staff there have contributed to the international debate about the purposes of sentencing and on how these aims should be realised’. How perpetrators of violence against women and girls (VAWG) are sentenced demands consideration of both aims and practice. The audience of students, academics and those working in the voluntary sector shared vital insight into what happens – and what should happen – when perpetrators are sentenced.

Our first speaker, Dr Emma Sleath from the University of Leicester shared the turbulent journey of many survivors to achieve a sense of justice through sentencing and their experience, if they got to that stage, of what this really looked and felt like for them. She shared the voices of lived experience highlighting the jargon and language used along with technology that acted, at times, as a barrier to understanding sentencing for some survivors. Good practice was also recognised. One judge’s sentencing remarks really helped understanding for one survivor, “I just felt that the process seemed logical and, I guess, fair in terms of what her guidelines were.” Core to the presentation was the need to put the victims and survivors at the heart of the criminal justice system.

Professor Vanessa Bettinson from De Montfort University continued with this theme highlighting the need for new sentencing guidelines for women who commit crimes driven by coercive and controlling behaviour in an intimate or family relationship. She identified minimal access for female offenders to defences of duress. Research (Corston, 2007; Barlow, 2016) evidenced offending due to coercive control which the Prison Reform Trust (2017) found was disproportionately experienced by women as opposed to male offenders. Professor Bettinson outlined the need to reduce culpability where coercive control had led to the offence due to capacity for choice being eroded and often where protective strategies to prioritise safety had led to what looked like compliance. The “Social Entrapment (SE) Model” was introduced where the impact on the victim-defendant is more fully explored and understood. She advocated for the SE model to be built into sentencing guidelines to help determine individual culpability. She also argued for full use of Pre-Sentence Reports and widespread training for lawyers, magistrates, and the judiciary on this subject.

Our last speaker Dr Felicity Gerry KC, International Criminal Silk and Professor of Legal Practice, presented from Australia and started by sharing her experience in this field that she had championed and led on. Dr Gerry looked at the four sentencing principles and the purposes behind them and went on to look at how sexual offence prosecutions are often framed around the credibility and/or reliability of the victim/survivor and the accused. She asked if restorative justice rather than mandatory sentencing is the answer, accepting that this is not a one size fits all approach as some victims will not want to engage in this way. She opened up the question of legitimacy; the importance around public perception when developing sentencing policy that is not emotionally driven by the media. She promoted a whole system approach that looked not just at sentencing and the law but also at health and education to tackle VAWG issues providing equal autonomy to women. Good practice examples were shared of bespoke courts in Australia focused upon drugs/alcohol/mental health that could also provide greater opportunity for lay experts and the community to be involved to better understand how crimes came about and their impact. In summary Dr Gerry shared an incremental, evidence based approach that informs health, education and law and carefully places the victims at the heart of any changes.

A number of questions from the audience then looked to explore these areas in more detail. The event provided an opportunity to open up the debate and conversation around VAWG and sentencing and the need for future events and research to be developed to help inform policy makers, the Judiciary, practitioners, statutory organisations, and the general public. Sarah McManus, Director of Operations at the Sentencing Academy said that “We were excited to co-deliver this event alongside Nottingham Law School and are hugely grateful to our speakers who shared their passion and expertise in this area alongside those who attended whose interest and insight really helped to make this event enjoyable and thought provoking.”

The Chair Orla Slattery, Lecturer at Nottingham Law School and Trustee for the Sentencing Academy said “It was wonderful to welcome such knowledgeable speakers to Nottingham Law School to consider both the current state of sentencing in relation to VAWG and importantly, how we may develop in the future.”

The Sentencing Academy is currently planning a range of future events to take place across the country that will focus upon specific themes or contemporary sentencing issues. Please check our website for up and coming events and registration details.