From Monday 26th June, a new offence of Non-Fatal Strangulation (NFS) is on the legal books in NI, that makes it a specific offence to strangle, smother or asphyxiate someone. This replaces a clause from the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act that ostensibly served the same purpose, but which has been very hard to prosecute because it specified that the strangulation was done in the course of attempting to commit another indictable offence – generally murder – and, in practice, that is often not the setting in which NFS takes place. For that reason, there have been very few successful prosecutions in Northern Ireland’s history.

The new law began life in 2021 in the form of a public consultation, and one aspect that was clear from the discussion at the time was that NFS is most commonly seen in cases of domestic abuse. In our consultation response at the time, we were keen to emphasise that this crime is heavily gendered. As research has shown, the overwhelming majority of the victims of this crime are women, and the overwhelming majority of perpetrators are men. This does not mean that the wording of the legislation should not be gender neutral and apply to all, but it does mean that care must be given to the focus of the educational piece that accompanies this legislation, to ensure that first responders are aware of this phenomenon presenting in a very gendered way. It is also vital that the public is made aware that, fundamentally, the practice of non-fatal strangulation is not an example of a person “snapping” under pressure, rather a very calculated means of exerting control on a victim. It is deeply tied to patriarchal notions of power balances in relationships, of who is “active” and who is “passive” in sexual encounters, and that this needs to be unpacked when doing preventative work around this issue. Philosopher Kate Manne argues that “strangulation is torture…It is characterised as a demonstration oof authority and domination. As such, together with its gendered nature, it is a type of action paradigmactic of misogyny.”[1]

Non-Fatal Strangulation is also especially dangerous; at an event launching the new legislation, experts from PPS, PSNI and SARCs that regularly sees survivors of this crime were careful to stress just how little force it takes to seriously injure someone during NFS, and to cause injuries that are not immediately obvious but can ultimately cause serious health issues such as stroke caused by blood clots, miscarriage, seizures, speech disorders and incontinence, to psychological impacts including PTSD, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and dissociation. It is also a very strong indicator of the likelihood of escalation; NFS has been present in the abuse that preceded many femicides.

The reality of the act of non-fatal strangulation is that it carries a profound threat; the victim is made acutely aware that their life is very literally in their attacker’s hands, that they can choose at any moment to end it. The impacts of this are significant, both in the moment and in the longer term, and a stand alone offence is the appropriate way to tackle it.

“Strangulation is an effective and cruel way of asserting dominance and control over a person through the terrifying experience of being starved of oxygen and the very close personal contact with the victim who is rendered helpless at the mercy of the offender. The intention of the offender may be to create a shared understanding that death, should the offender so choose, is only seconds away. The act of strangulation symbolizes an abuser’s power and control over the victim, most of whom are female.”[2]

Another real positive from the new legislation is that the sentencing options are better than those recently adopted in England and Wales, with sentences of up to 14 years available in Crown Court hearings. It remains to be seen what will happen in practice, and whether these cases are routinely sent to Crown Court (the alternative, Magistrates Court, has a maximum sentence of only two years). This points to the need for the whole of the public, from judges, to first responders, to ordinary people, to become more aware of the nature of NFS, of how it presents in a survivor, of what it tells us about the dangers posed by the offender, and of what we can all do to spread awareness of this horrific practice – and this is why an educational piece will be essential. We are pleased to see that PSNI will be producing a visual guide as to the presentation of NFS for all officers to use.

Overall, the new offence is a really positive step for Northern Ireland and, if operated well, will save lives. We will be keeping a close eye on the courts to see that it is applied with the care it needs and deserves.

[1] Manne, Kate (2018) Down Girl, the Logic of Misogyny (Oxford University Press) p. 3

[2] R-v-Campbell Allen [2020] NICA 25