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Sally Challen – A Case Study on Coercive and Controlling Behaviour

In December 2015 a significant change was made to the law, making controlling and coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship a crime.

Unfortunately for Sally Challen, at the time of her trial for the murder of her husband, this crime did not yet exist. Looking at the details of the coercive behaviour she had to endure at the hands of her husband, it is clear that the case concerned the exact pattern of behaviour that the Serious Crime Act subsequently criminalised.

Most of you will be aware from the extensive press coverage, that in 2019 Sally was successful in overturning her conviction. This was as a result of the change to the law and the expert evidence presented on her behalf which persuaded the court that Sally had been the victim of controlling and coercive behaviour by her husband. The expert evidence detailed to the court the devastating effect of this behaviour on the victim.

Sally Challen had endured years of torment by her husband which had undermined her sense of self and autonomy. Her husband was entirely dominant over her, demanding that she did absolutely everything around the house, insisting that she use the money that he gave her solely to purchase necessary items for the household while he spent lavishly on himself. This was financial abuse. There were also reports that he had “gaslighted” her. Gaslighting is described as deliberate behaviour designed to make the person on the receiving end of it, doubt their sanity. In this case the husband belittled her for accusing him of having extra-marital affairs, when in fact this was exactly what was happening. He forbade her from socialising and isolated her from any sources of support.

At one stage when they had separated and she told him that she wanted them to reconcile, he agreed on the condition that she sign an agreement which provided that she would refrain from talking too much and smoking. He also demanded a post-nuptial agreement be signed that was completely one sided in his favour.

The story of Sally Challen is desperately sad both for her and her sons, (who have been outspoken in their support of their mother), but I believe it has opened a lot of people’s minds to the different types of domestic abuse that go unspoken and which in some cases are accepted as “normal” behaviour. What Sally Challen’s husband put her through is not acceptable on any level; it was domestic abuse.

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Louise Barretto's picture

Louise is a partner in our Family Team and a solicitor specialising in all aspects of family law, with a particular emphasis on complex financial matters, including those involving business assets and those with an international element.

She is dual qualified in England and in South Africa. Although she now practices solely in England, she deals with many cases which have a South African connection.  She has  been called upon to assist as an expert witness on English divorce law in the High Court of South Africa.