This is the 'last warning shot' before a man kills his partner
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This is the 'last warning shot' before a man kills his partner

Making strangulation an offence will save lives.

Making strangulation an offence will save lives.

Photo: Stocksy

There’s one day we could have saved Joy Rowley’s life.

February 2011. Her former partner, James Mulhall, choked her after she asked him to leave her house.

A woman whose partner tries to strangle her is eight times more likely to end up dead, says Heather Douglas, Australia’s leading researcher in this area and a professor of law at the University of Queensland.

It’s the reason activists across Australia are campaigning for laws to recognise strangulation as an offence. It’s worked in the US, say two key US advocates; and in Queensland, say two women working at the coalface of family violence.

CEO of Women’s Legal Service Queensland Angela Lynch is exasperated by those who think we should only "work to change the system".

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“Why wouldn’t you want an offence for something that increases women’s chance of homicide by 800 per cent?” she says. “You can actually have a strangulation offence and work for systems-wide change. It’s not one or the other.”

To repeat: a woman whose partner attempts to strangle her – causes her to pass out, urinate or defecate because of the attempt – is eight times more likely to end up dead.

Joy Rowley was strangled to death by Mulhall in October 2011. After the inquest, Victorian coroner Sara Hinchey called for a review of all deaths related to family violence. The coroner made one point which could save the lives of women across Australia.

Hinchey’s language is legal but read this paragraph right to end: “The introduction of a stand-alone offence for strangulation, suffocation or choking in Victoria may significantly help to ensure strangulation is treated commensurate with the risk it poses to victims, and remove the need to prove particular bodily harm or intent to cause injury. Such an offence will more effectively hold perpetrators to account for serious offending.”

Do specific strangulation offences really work?

Since Queensland’s Attorney-General and Minister for Justice Yvette D’Ath introduced a stand-alone offence in 2016, there have been over 400 convictions.

“We saw a dramatic rise in domestic violence charges... because victims were finally able to come forward and know they would be taken seriously.

“Crucially, the data is for the first time showing encouraging signs of stabilisation; the first tentative steps towards the long-term cultural change required to tackle domestic violence.”

Heather Douglas says in Queensland the offence has created greater awareness, “An important point in bail refusals. The bail act was updated last year after a person released on bail after being charged with strangulation went on to kill his partner.

“The research indicates it’s clearly an important risk assessment issue and should be an important consideration in relation to arrest, finding safe housing, health check referrals for the woman, or bail decisions where police are concerned.”

What are other states doing?

The Northern Territory and Tasmania have some specific offences relating to strangulation while South Australia and Western Australia are currently considering options.

In NSW, Labor's shadow attorney-general Paul Lynch, the shadow minister for the prevention of domestic violence Jenny Aitchison and the member for the Blue Mountains Trish Doyle, are preparing a submission on increasing the effectiveness of NSW’s strangulation offences after meetings with women’s advocates, including Destroy The Joint’s Deb Smith.

In some jurisdictions, the law calls for the victim to be rendered insensible or unable to resist and/or that the strangulation is being committed to enable a criminal offence, like rape, or escape from arrest. Those laws need to be reviewed and amended to be more in line with Queensland and the ACT.

CEO of US organisation Alliance for Hope Gael Strack became an advocate for these offences after the death of two teenagers, who had previously been victims of strangulation, during her time as a prosecutor. Now 47 US states have strangulation offences.

“Strangulation is the last warning shot before someone is killed,” she says.

CEO of the Red Rose Foundation, a national organisation, Betty Taylor is an advocate for this. Red Rose established the Bianca Faith Girven National Institute for Strangulation Prevention to get the message out, to provides training and research nationwide.

Have those offences made a difference?

Bill Smock, the police surgeon for the Louisville Metro Police Department, has examined hundreds of strangulation cases in the US and is now an international educator on strangulation prevention.

"These laws are critically needed to protect women and to hold the individuals accountable who are squeezing the life out of another human being."

Strack says there is no perfect method for analysing the complexity of domestic violence but a US report from 2009 shows these laws have a positive impact on victim safety and offender accountability.

These laws make perfectly clear the nature of the offence. It won’t change society overnight, it’s not a miracle.

“But if we can save one life, it’s all worth it.”

Jenna Price is a researcher in family violence and is a Herald columnist. She is involved in Destroy The Joint.