So far so predictable, but what makes the story of interest to the criminal law is that Pryce has pleaded not guilty and has put forward the rarely used defence of marital coercion.
This defence is contained in s.47 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925, which states:
“Any presumption of law that an offence committed by a wife in the presence of her husband is committed under the coercion of the husband is hereby abolished, but on a charge against a wife for any offence other than treason or murder, it shall be a good defence to prove that the offence was committed in the presence of, and under the coercion of, the husband”.This, interestingly, was a reversal of the traditional common law position, which was that a wife who committed certain crimes (excepting treason and murder) in the presence of her husband was presumed to be acting under coercion unless it could be shown that she took the initiative in committing the offence. This may have been explicable in a system of law where the woman owned no property and was assumed to be under the command of her husband, but makes little sense as women ecame more independent and were recognised as possessing equal rights.
It is accordingly not a surprise to find that there were proposals to reform this law from as early as 1845. In a case in 1912 a judge denied the existence of the rule, but his decision was overturned on appeal (the Court of Criminal Appeal having been established in 1906). The final blow to the old rule came with the case of R v Peel and wife in 1922 which involved a fraudulent betting scheme: the husband was convicted of the offence, but the wife (who the judge was clear had acted independently) was acquitted on the basis of the rule. As so often happens in such cases, questions were asked in Parliament, and this led to the establishment of the Avory Committee which recommended the complete abolition of the defence. Instead of this, s.47 replaced the old rule.
The new rule had certain requirements: the offence should be committed in the presence of the husband; and the coercion need not be physical but moral or psychological. All the same it is difficult to justify the existence of the rule as it seems to imply the women are weaker than their husbands and it only applies to married couples and not any relationship where this type of coercion might be exercised. So it is not surprising that the Law Commission recommended the abolition of the defence in 1977, to be replaced by the general defence of duress - though this proposal was never enacted.
Which brings us back to the present. The rule does seem strange and anachronistic, though in a world where we are perhaps more aware of the kind subtle psychological pressures that can be exercised by a dominant partner (especially in the context of domestic abuse) it is perhaps also a useful reminder that such coercion exists and might properly be recognised in some way by criminal law.