Jane Monckton-Smith is Professor of Public Protection at the University of Gloucestershire and a specialist in domestic homicide. She is a courteous interviewee, speaking in a soft, West Country burr. Her gentle manner starkly contrasts with her research material: she has closely analysed over 400 murders. Her work aims to prevent more killings.

I congratulate her on the success of her book In Control: Dangerous Relationships and How They End in Murder, which provides a hermeneutic for assessing risk, not linked to instances of physical violence. I ask her how the legal world has responded.

‘It seems to be resonating with people. A police officer said it helps bring order out of chaos. We tend to think of domestic abuse and human relationships as individualistic, interpersonal dynamics. However, it follows consistent, observable patterns.’

She relates how a judge is closing his court so that staff can be trained in this pattern recognition. ‘Advocates,’ she continues, ‘have also used the homicide timeline to argue for restraining and protection orders. A magistrate said she used it in relation to assessing aggravating and mitigating factors.’

In Control contained trenchant criticisms of the courts, describing their adversarial environments as comfortable territory for abusers. The Family Court attracted specific criticism. I ask the Professor what message she has for family practitioners.

‘It is difficult to differentiate between abuse and people who are simply fighting with each other. The timeline can help distinguish them. The need is for highly skilled advocates – and judges especially – to be armed with the knowledge to assist them in identifying the patterns of coercive control.’

We digress into a discussion of language and its usage around domestic abuse.

‘When judgments are being made, it is important to be able to recognise the type of language which can perpetuate myths about domestic abuse.’ She pauses. ‘This doesn’t just affect the courts, but society as a whole. For example, people say “an abusive relationship”, but it is not the relationship that is abusive, it is the abuser.’

We are into fascinating territory; that of the absolution of crimes through unconsciously accepted tropes such as the ‘crime of passion’. I mention that my wife listens to Laura Richards’ podcast, in which Laura objects to headlines such as ‘What Drove [the killer] To Kill’ – the point being that it makes it seem like an external force propelled the murderer, rather than maintaining a more accurate narrative that holds them responsible. Professor Monckton-Smith agrees:

‘We make the agency of the offender invisible. When you start by saying “they’re a husband, or a lover, or a wife’, you are already using language which diminishes how dangerous the offenders are. Research makes powerful links between domestic abuse and the most serious offending. If you were profiling serial killers or terrorists, a high-risk marker would be domestic abuse. It isn’t about “these two people don’t get on”. Society needs to make a philosophical, psychological leap where we assess a domestic abuse offender forensically. In their own right they present more risk to society than a normal person.’

Her argument demands to be taken seriously. In the UK, over 100 women are killed by their partners and ex-partners every year. Domestic homicide is not a ‘tragic but isolated incident’ – the words recently used by a Detective Superintendent in Wales to describe the killing of a 15-year-old girl by her 19-year-old brother. The facts of that case may be distinct, but it is all too common for women to be killed at home.

We discuss how it is that controlling people can be triggered by a change in their partner’s mental health, or, indeed, their own.

‘When people talk about an Alzheimer’s related death being a “mercy killing” – that’s troubling. Firstly, the methods of killing in these cases are anything but merciful. On the other hand, it can also be the case that an offender who has Alzheimer’s – and who had been controlling or violent before – can become worse. Another scenario emerges when a person subject to coercive control becomes ill. When professionals come in to make decisions, that can annoy the controlling person, whose systems of control are disrupted.’

I gently challenge Professor Monckton-Smith: is it not problematic to give more priority to victims in legal cases? How about the fact that some family practitioners complain that allegations of domestic abuse are routinely made by women to gain legal aid? She pushes back:

‘I’d say to them: on what evidence do you say these allegations are false? How can you be sure it isn’t your cynicism? In any case, if the court is drowning in false allegations, then it is crucial that the court can differentiate between arguing couples and real domestic abuse situations. The court needs to be able to assess the substance of abuse allegations effectively.’

Professor Monckton-Smith comments on other issues she sees as problematic. (She prefaces her remark by calling it a ‘pet peeve’ – but I think she’s making well-reasoned points.)

‘I really want to see change to the status of expert evidence of domestic abuse. There is huge resistance to using domestic abuse experts. The court prefers medical evidence, psychological diagnoses – and so on. Should the court not know about the patterns of domestic abuse? Rather, the court seems to be obsessed with diagnoses and with outdated notions like “battered woman syndrome”. The court asks, “Can we diagnose this offender with depression?” The whole thing becomes individualised and effective analysis is lost.’

She wants court staff, the judiciary, even juries, to be ‘upskilled’ in understanding domestic abuse. Her frustration is that the courts have relied for ‘donkey’s years’ on medical evidence, but has been slow to gain the benefit of research, this despite the UK government stating that coercive control was the best framework for understanding domestic abuse. This is not about her, Professor Monckton-Smith seeks to assure me, ‘It is the old story of modernisation and tradition clashing.’

She mentions another ‘peeve’, having recently been involved in a case where a psychiatrist was commissioned to retrospectively assess a suicide victim. ‘I disagreed strongly with his report. He saw my report and then said he wanted to change his own. This was because, although he was a psychiatrist, he admitted he had no knowledge of domestic abuse. Expert witnesses in cases of domestic abuse need to be trained in it. It seems obvious but it is not happening.’

It’s not just a gender issue, she says. Though most homicide is committed by men, many women demonstrate coercive controlling behaviour. ‘It is about recognising controlling tactics across the genders. It is not about “you’re not convicting enough people” or “you’re making dangerous decisions”: it is about how decisions have been reached. I would like decisions to be reached considering all the evidence rather than making decisions based on “common sense”. The patterns of domestic abuse are evidence. Knowing about domestic abuse is not perceived as a skill. The timeline is not a feminist ideology to say “women are getting the rough end of the stick here”. I didn’t make up the timeline. It is tried and tested in other homicide cases. We need to upskill.’

Upskill. It is a constant refrain in our talk. I have a sense in talking to Professor Monckton-Smith, as I did in reading her book, that I am in the company of a woman who is several steps ahead of where our society is at present; someone banging the drum for necessary change.

I refer rather clumsily to domestic abuse being Professor Monckton-Smith’s ‘bread and butter’ – by which I meant familiarity with her topic. She uses the opportunity to inform me that she ‘hates the whole expert witness thing. I don’t like it. I don’t enjoy it. It terrifies the bloody life out of me.’ I remark that sometimes judges can be scary – indeed, her book contains a description of a judge attacking her (verbally, I hasten to add). ‘Barristers can be scary too!’ she says.

We’ve been talking about sombre matters. Professor Monckton-Smith closes with a review of her reasons to keep hopeful:

‘The UK has led the world in recognising coercive control as the offence it is. And, since I wrote the book, many legal professionals have contacted me. It feels like there is a movement to a more forensic approach to domestic abuse in the courts.’

Professor Monckton-Smith has taken a fair bit of flak for her work. However, because she has emphasised evidence that can be assessed rather than ideology, she says she has escaped the worse abuse that others have suffered. I say she is brave to have put herself in the line of fire.

‘This interview,’ she says, ‘is one of the things that gives me hope. I feel that the work is being taken seriously.’

I assure her that is the case. I hope, for the sake of the victims of coercive and controlling people, that lawyers will continue to engage with Professor Monckton-Smith’s challenging, timely and relevant research. 

In Control: Dangerous Relationships and How They End in Murder

(Jane Monckton Smith, Bloomsbury Circus, 2021. Paperback £13.99)