The Sally Challen Case

Lessons to be learned from Sally Challen

*Heads up that this blog contains themes of domestic violence which some readers may find upsetting*

Now I just couldn’t start up a Family Law blog without touching upon the watershed Sally Challen case. For those of you who don’t know, Sally Challen is a woman who was given a mandatory life sentence (with a minimum of 22 years) in 2011 for killing her abusive and controlling husband, Richard Challen, the year before.

This somewhat grizzly yet tragic case quickly captured the media’s attention; as the image of a middle-class woman bludgeoning her husband to death with a hammer in the kitchen of their £1 million house in Surrey caused quite the furore.

Yet at the risk of sounding just a little cliché –  Sally herself was also a victim in this, having suffered years of emotional abuse and controlling behaviour at the hands of her husband for over 40 years.

In the Guardian her son, David Challen (a now prominent domestic abuse campaigner), tells of how the couple met when Sally was just 15 and Richard was 6 years her senior at 21. Red flags developed early on into the whirlwind romance when Richard dragged Sally down the stairs and threw her out of the front door after she challenged him about seeing another woman.

David describes how a “culture of fear and dependency” ensued, as his father humiliated, isolated and controlled her whilst simultaneously being repeatedly unfaithful. Richard would frequently make comments about her weight publicly, alienate her from friends and family, and would not allow her to socialise without him whilst he was free to frequent brothels and send out Christmas cards with him posing with models.

In one particularly unpleasant incident Richard reportedly took Sally upstairs and anally raped her after catching Sally hugging one of Richard’s friends goodnight. Sally reportedly tried to leave on a number of occasions citing emotional abuse but to no avail, every aspect of her life was controlled by Richard and he had convinced her she could not survive without him.

However, it appeared that as the majority of abuse suffered by Sally was non-physical and was emotional and controlling in nature; she was not afforded much protection under the law in place at the time.

Coercive control

In December 2015, Parliament finally criminalised ‘controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship‘ under section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015; in a move most welcomed by Family and Criminal lawyers alike.

The aim of the legislation was to allow ‘victims who experience the type of behaviour that stops short of serious physical violence, but amounts to extreme psychological and emotional abuse’ and ‘to bring their perpetrators to justice and seek protection from the law‘. Meaning justice at last for a number of victims/survivors of controlling behaviour and emotional abuse, as the law finally recognised the toll that such abuse takes and how difficult it is for such people to “just leave” when every aspect of their finances, relationships with others and daily lives are controlled by their partners.

I was a final year university student studying Family Law (having spent the previous year studying advanced criminal law) when this legislation was introduced and I remember rejoicing that finally the law was beginning to reflect the wider, and in some ways more sinister, nature of domestic violence, and the psychological toll that emotional abuse takes.

Sally Challen’s legal team also sensed the opportunity that this landmark piece of legislation presented; as they put together a case that years of being controlled by her emotionally abusive husband led her to kill him. After hearing fresh medical evidence about the impact her husband’s coercive control had on Sally, Ms Challen pleaded guilty to a lesser crime of manslaughter – and was released from prison last June, having already served nine years and four months.

Making Legal History Again

Earlier this year, Sally went on to make the headlines again after she won a legal battle to inherit her husband’s £1million estate. In this ruling last month (May 2020), Judge Paul Matthews waived the usual “forfeiture” rules, which usually precludes people who kill from inheriting their victim’s estate. The usual latin maxim “ex turpi causa non oritur actio” which means that the courts may refuse to enforce a claim that arises from the claimant’s own illegal or immoral conduct was disregarded in her case.

The ruling meant that Challen, rather than her son’s, could inherit his estate in the first instance thereby avoiding having to pay a hefty inheritance tax bill.

Whilst this is a major ruling, the judge has warned that this case will not necessarily amount to a carte blanche for all victims of coercive control to inherit their partner’s inheritance where they are responsible for the death. The judge was keen to stress that every case will be tested on it’s merits, in this case the husband had “undoubtedly” contributed to his own death, adding that “The facts of this terrible case are so extraordinary, with such a fatal combination of conditions and events, that I would not expect them easily to be replicated in any other.”


Sally’s case, both in terms of her original appeal against her murder conviction and her later battle to inherit her abuser’s estate signals a step-change in the law’s treatment of victims of coercive control. At last, it would appear that the law is beginning to take a more empathetic approach to people who “snap” after suffering psychiatric injury from years of emotional abuse and/or controlling behaviour.

It shows that once the initial “moral panic” that we often see in cases of women who kill had subsided; the justice system finally recognised the damage that coercive and controlling behaviour can take on an individual. At last, the law is finally beginning to appreciate that for women ensnared in such relationships, whose abusive partners hold the purse-strings, and control every aspect of their daily lives; it is never simple for her to “just leave”. Which for many years has sadly been the retort when domestic violence survivors use self-defensive force.

This case feels particularly poignant during the current coronavirus lockdown, where tragically calls to domestic violence have risen by 25%. The Counting Dead Women project also recorded 16 killings of women and children in the first three weeks of lockdown – where they’d sadly usually expect five.

Please note; any references to gender in this article are merely intended to reflect the circumstances of this case. It is not intended to imply that only woman can be victims of domestic violence or to imply that only they should be able to ‘get away with murder’ as it were. The Family Law Blog recognises that domestic violence can be suffered (and indeed perpetrated) by any one of any gender.

If you or anyone you know is experiencing or has experienced domestic violence, please do get in contact with a family lawyer and/or helpline as appropriate. Many retailers such as Boots have also turned their pharmacy consultation rooms into safe spaces where people can contact  specialist domestic abuse services for support and advice.

*Please also note that this blog is not intended to be a substitute for specialist legal advice which is tailored to your individual circumstances.*

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