Not so long ago, it was hard to imagine Radio 4’s The Archers making headlines. The portrait of country life was better known for its iconic theme tune and reputation as an easy Sunday afternoon listen than it was for groundbreaking drama. Yet the domestic violence storyline between Helen and Rob Titchener – building up gradually over time, and coming to a dramatic climax this week – has changed that.
Reactions were divided between those who thought the programme had diverged too far from its prior tone, and those who were relieved to see the writers take on an issue that, after all, some estimates suggest one in four women will have to deal with in their lifetime.
After yesterday’s omnibus bombshell, though, there’s another question occupying Archers fans: namely, if Rob is indeed dead, could Helen be prosecuted for stabbing him?
Obviously, every case is different, and it’s impossible to know what would hypothetically happen in court – not least because the storyline is ongoing, and we can only go off the “facts” as they’re presented to us by the show’s writers.
That said, the legal aspect of Helen’s story is interesting, especially given recent changes to the law covering domestic violence. I asked Olivia Potts, a criminal barrister at 5 Paper Buildings, for her thoughts on the case:
“At first blush, Helen appears to be acting in pre-emptive defence of another (Henry). Self-defence is a ‘full’ defence, meaning that if something succeeds with this defence, they walk free. But as Rob pleads with Helen, we then hear her yell and stab him again. This suggests she goes beyond reasonable force in the circumstances.
“If this is the case, Helen wouldn’t be able to plead self defence in court. ‘Reasonable force’ is based on the facts as Helen believed them to be at the time, but a jury would have to ask themselves whether, on the basis of the facts as Helen believed them, would a reasonable person see the force as proportionate or excessive? If Helen stabbed Rob after he was incapacitated (which is how it sounded to me), this would not be self defence.
So what other options are available?
“Helen’s best option may be to claim loss of control (provocation). This requires three things:
- For the killing to be caused by loss of control
- For that loss of control to have a “qualifying trigger” (a fear of serious violence against her or someone else, or circumstances of ‘an extremely grave character’ which caused the defendant to have a justifiable sense of feeling wronged)
- For the loss of the control to be reasonable in the circumstances
“Loss of control carries a reverse burden: Helen would have to show on a balance of probabilities that, due to her treatment by Rob, she was not able to exercise the control that she otherwise would have done.”
If Helen was able to successfully plead loss of control, Potts says, she would still be found guilty of manslaughter. “Loss of control is a partial defence: if it succeeds, Helen would be found guilty of manslaughter, and not guilty of murder. Murder carries a mandatory minimum life sentence, but there is no minimum sentence for manslaughter.”
But could something have been done sooner? Some commentors have asked if new laws covering coercive and controlling abuse, which became crime punishable by up to five years in prison from last year – even if the abuse stops short of physical violence – could have helped Helen.
Defined as behaviour which causes someone to fear violence against them on at least two occasions, or causing serious alarm or distress that has a substantial effect on their usual day-to-day-activities, controlling and coercive behaviour, “can be incredibly harmful . . . even if on the face of it, this behaviour might seem playful, innocuous or loving”, as director of public prosecutions Alison Saunders put it in an interview with the Guardian last year.
Writing in the New Statesman earlier this year, Helen Walmsley-Johnson explained how reading the new law’s framework document helped her identify the behaviour of previous partners as abusive. Could this sort of law have helped The Archers’ Helen?
Unfortunately, Potts suggests they might not be much use at this stage:
“This is particularly upsetting since the government’s published guidelines as to what constitutes controlling or coercive behaviour reads like a character profile for Rob: isolating a person from their friends and family, monitoring their time, taking control over aspects of their everyday life, such as where they can go, who they can see, what to wear and when they can sleep, repeatedly putting them down such as telling them they are worthless, preventing a person from having access to transport or from working, rape.
“Hopefully, as the new laws bed in, and become more widely known, those in situations like Helen will be encouraged to seek help sooner.”
Still, with all due caveats about postulating on a fictional scenario, Potts suggests that Rob’s abuse would likely still be “a hugely mitigating factor in any sentence. It would be the point of focus for any defence lawyer – and, I suspect, for the judge”. What that would mean in terms of acquittal, however, is unclear.
For more information about domestic violence, including how to get help if you’re suffering from any form of abuse, can be found at the National Centre for Domestic Violence online or by calling their helpline on 0800 970 2070.