Battered Woman Syndrome & Self Defence: How Far is Too Far?

by | May 20, 2024 | Domestic Assault

Being charged with domestic assault can be a very traumatic experience when you have been the victim of violence yourself throughout the course of your relationship. Thankfully, our courts have recognized the impact domestic violence can have on an accused person’s reasoning process when they are fighting back against long-standing abuse. If you have been charged with any form of assault, manslaughter, or even murder in the context of an abusive relationship, battered spouse syndrome may be helpful to your case.

What is Battered Woman Syndrome?

Battered woman syndrome, also sometimes referred to as battered spouse syndrome, has been described by the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) in R. v. Malott as “a psychiatric explanation of the mental state of an abused woman”. Battered woman syndrome is a subcategory of post-traumatic stress disorder. The symptoms consistent with battered women syndrome are the psychological effects resulting from ongoing domestic abuse, whether that is psychological and/or physical abuse. These symptoms often lead the battered woman to feel unsafe and continuously threatened.

In situations of domestic violence, it is often very difficult for the abused partner to leave the abusive situation. Battered woman syndrome provides context as to why the abused partner may have a difficult time leaving the situation and why they may have resorted to committing a criminal, sometimes violent, act to defend themselves from further abuse.

Read more about our experience with domestic assault charges and check out our latest cases.

Can Battered Woman Syndrome Be Used as a Defence?

Battered woman syndrome itself is not a full defence but it can be used as evidence to support the defense of self-defence where the accused has been charged with an offence against the person who was abusing them. This is most relevant for cases where the accused experienced domestic abuse and/or domestic assault at the hands of the victim of the offence.

If you have been abused by your spouse, and charged with domestic assault, assault with a weapon, assault causing bodily harm, aggravated assault or even manslaughter or murder, this defence may apply to you.

Self-defence is a statutory defence, meaning there are requirements laid out in section 34 of the Criminal Code which must be met in order to successfully argue self-defence. Section 34(1) of the Criminal Code requires that the accused can demonstrate that they:

  1. believe “force [or a threat of force] is being used against them or another person”
  2. committed an act “for the purpose of defending or protecting themselves or the other person from that use or threat of force”
  3. committed an act that “is reasonable in the circumstances.”

Battered woman syndrome is relevant for the first requirement of this defence because it can affect the accused’s belief regarding threat of force against themselves or another person. Due to the ongoing nature of long-term domestic abuse and assault, someone experiencing battered woman syndrome may reasonably believe that they are being threatened and respond to this threat with a criminal act.

The belief of force or threat of force will be assessed by the court on a modified objective standard, meaning the personal characteristics and relevant experiences of the accused will be considered by the court when assessing if the accused’s belief of force was reasonable or not. This is where evidence of battered woman syndrome can be applicable as the accused would have experienced abuse at the hands of the victim.

The second requirement for self-defence (under s. 34(1)(b)) requires that the accused committed the act to protect themselves. This is to prevent self-defence from being successful where an accused was solely motivated by revenge or punishment rather than actually defending themselves. This requirement can still be met even if there are other underlying emotions, such as anger, when the act is committed, as long as the purpose of the act was to defend themselves from the victim’s force or threat of force.

The last requirement for self-defence is that the act is “reasonable in the circumstances” (s. 34(1)(c)). Battered woman syndrome can affect what the accused would perceive as reasonable in the circumstances. The court will assess reasonableness again using modified objective standard, so the accused’s experiences with the victim should be considered when determining if the accused’s act was reasonable in the circumstances.

When the court assesses the reasonableness of the accused’s act, the Criminal Code states that the court shall consider “the nature, duration and history of any relationship between the parties to the incident, including any prior use or threat of force and the nature of that force or threat” (section 34(2)(f)). This is where evidence of battered woman syndrome and ongoing domestic assault and abuse is very relevant. By including this in the Criminal Code, the government is directing judges and lawyers alike to consider the effects of domestic violence when it comes to self-defence.

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Can Evidence of Battered Woman Syndrome Be Used to Reduce Sentences?

Battered woman syndrome could be relevant evidence in many steps of criminal proceedings. Where an accused has plead guilty or been convicted of domestic assault, the sentencing judge may consider evidence of battered woman syndrome as a mitigating factor. A mitigating factor is something that reduces that offender’s moral culpability, even if they are found or plead guilty to the offence of domestic assault already.

An example of a successful use of battered woman syndrome to reduce sentencing for a manslaughter charge arising out of domestic violence, is in the Naslund case out of Alberta. The accused in that case plead guilty to manslaughter after being charged with first degree murder of her husband (read the press note here).

Naslund’s legal team argued on appeal that, because she was a battered woman, the 18-year sentence she initially received was too severe. The Alberta Court of Appeal agreed that the sentence was too severe and that the sentencing judge did not appropriately consider Naslund’s evidence of battered woman syndrome. The outcome was that Naslund’s sentence was reduced from 18 years to 9 years, after the court appropriately considered evidence of battered woman syndrome.

Are you interested in gaining more knowledge about representing abused women in court? This series from UBC Press might help. Another expert article that examines the current state of the battered woman syndrome defense in Canada can be found on Forensic Psychiatry Institute website.

If you are charged with an offence that involves domestic violence, such as assault, assault with a weapon, assault causing bodily harm, aggravated assault or even manslaughter or murder, and believe battered woman syndrome may apply to your case, reach out to the team at Mickelson, Whysall, Moore & Forhan Law Group.

Our lawyers are knowledgeable on the subject matter of this defence and will know how to best address if battered woman syndrome, or battered spouse syndrome, may be useful to your defence.