Northern Ireland

Abuse survivor welcomes non-fatal strangulation being made a specific offence

The woman is a survivor of a recent non-fatal strangulation (Liam McBurney/PA)
The woman is a survivor of a recent non-fatal strangulation (Liam McBurney/PA)

A domestic abuse survivor who was strangled until she lost consciousness has welcomed the creation of non-fatal strangulation as specific criminal offence.

The woman, who is known as Alice to protect her anonymity, spoke about the terror she felt as she lost consciousness, fearing she would die and her child would find her body.

She suffered escalating violence, particularly of a sexual nature, and was left covered in bruises on three occasions.

Alice was twice strangled into submission before contacting police in 2020.

Earlier this year, her former husband was sentenced to six years in custody, three on licence.

She described how the second time she was strangled to the point where she blacked out, she lost control of her bladder and bowels.

“When I was strangled the second time the noticeable increase in velocity and severity of the violence was the reason I reported it to the police,” she said.

“I was strangled the second time to the point where I blacked out, lost control of my bladder and bowels and honestly felt I was going to die.

“My face was covered in petechiae from reflecting the immense pressure with which I was strangled, and I was swollen and puffy and also black and blue from bruises and bites.

“While I was being strangled (and afterwards), all I could think about was my child finding my dead body.

“The very possibility of this situation being reality is something I think about every day. This has had a long lasting impact on not just me, but my entire family.

“When I contacted the police I felt respected, heard. My instinct that night was like fight or flight – I wanted to survive.”

Alice has welcomed that from Monday non-fatal strangulation is a specific offence as part of the Justice (Sexual offences & trafficking victims) Act (NI) 2022.

Those convicted could face up to 14 years in prison.

“Strangulation could end someone’s life. I’m pleased that the punishment now fits the crime in these cases,” she said.

“This legislation takes into consideration the total paralysing fear a victim will experience and how close they have come to death. Strangulation is a demonstration of control, not a loss of it.”

Before this legislation, police officers would have to provide evidence of intent to commit an indictable offence. Now anything that does or could restrict someone’s breathing in any way is an offence.

According to police figures, over the last 10 years – January 2013 to December 2022 – there were nearly 164,000 domestic abuse offences recorded.

In the same time frame, seven people (six women and one man) in Northern Ireland were strangled to death.

Domestic abuse survivor
Alice told how the abuse has had a ‘long lasting impact’ on herself and her entire family (Liam McBurney/PA) (Liam McBurney/PA)

Detective Superintendent Lindsay Fisher said on average between 10-12% domestic abuse victims who come forward to police have experienced non-fatal strangulation.

“Non-fatal strangulation, can very quickly turn fatal. This change in legislation is very much welcomed by the Police Service of Northern Ireland as a stronger tool in the armoury that we use to support victims and save lives,” she said.

The PSNI has trained 1,560 officers in the new legislation and will work in partnership with the Public Prosecution Service to train prosecuting judges and legal teams to better understand the severity of non-fatal strangulation.

Ms Fisher added: “It is common for strangulation to leave no visible signs of injury and consequences can be delayed by days or weeks. These include stroke, cardiac arrest, miscarriage, incontinence, seizures, memory loss and long-term brain injury.”

Sarah Mason, chief executive of Women’s Aid Federation NI, described non-fatal strangulation as the “ultimate act of control by a perpetrator to exert power and to instil fear”.

“It a lethal form of assault very common within cases of domestic abuse, therefore making it very gendered in nature with the majority of victims of this crime being women,” she said.

“Women’s Aid are glad to see this much needed change to legislation in NI. It is important that all organisations not just those within the criminal justice sector understand the high risk indicators there are for non-fatal strangulation survivors and the link there is to domestic homicide.”

Richard Pengelly, Permanent Secretary at the Department of Justice, welcomed the new legislation as “providing greater protection for victims”.

“This crime can affect anyone and can occur in a number of circumstances. However, there are those who use strangulation and asphyxiation to exert control and fear in others, including in cases of domestic abuse,” he said.

“No matter the circumstances for this behaviour occurring and whether harm is intended or not, the consequences can be far reaching. In recognition of the serious harm it causes, this new offence carries greater penalties than were previously available and today marks another step forward in making our community safer.”