- 26 June 2023
All Northern Ireland
Today, Monday 26th June, non-fatal strangulation or asphyxiation (under The Justice Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims Act NI 2022) has been made a specific criminal offence in Northern Ireland, punishable by up to 14 years’ imprisonment.
Before this legislation, investigating police officers would have to provide evidence of intent to commit an indictable offence. For example, if someone had been strangled in what was believed to be a sexually motivated attack, the officer would have to show that the perpetrator intended to commit sexual assault before they could pursue prosecution.
Now, this new legislation means that if you do anything that does or could restrict someone’s breathing in any way you should be prepared to face a prison sentence for this offence alone. Non-fatal strangulation includes; any part of your body or another object such as a ligature like a scarf or belt, chokeholds or headlocks, hanging, drowning or smothering.
Strangulation and suffocation can also at times, leave no visible injury, making it previously even more difficult to prosecute. This new legislation will take into consideration the emotional impact, trauma and fear that the victim experiences. Senior police have today described this as a “step forward in helping officers tackle the magnitude of the threat.”
Over the last 10 years, January 2013 to December 2022, there were nearly 164,000 domestic abuse offences recorded by the Police Service of Northern Ireland. This includes those who reported having been strangled by their abuser.
Detective Superintendent Lindsay Fisher explains: “On average, between 10-12% of reporting domestic abuse victims have experienced non-fatal strangulation, placing them at the highest risk. In fact, studies have shown that in domestic abuse settings, victims are eight times more likely to be murdered by their partner if they have previously strangled them.
“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.”
Over the last 10 years, January 2013 to December 2022, seven people (six women and one man) in Northern Ireland were strangled to death. This is how quickly non-fatal strangulation can turn incredibly sinister and have fatal consequences.
Alice (not her real name) was married to her perpetrator. A few years into the marriage, the relationship took a turn and he became violent towards her, particularly of a sexual nature. Alice was left covered in bruises and strangled into submission by him on a number of occasions. Each time, the velocity and severity of the violence increased. In 2020, she reported to the Police and earlier this year her perpetrator was found guilty and sentenced. Alice has welcomed today’s strengthening of legislation saying:
“I was strangled 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 children finding my dead body. The very real 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.
“Strangulation could end someone’s life. I’m pleased that the punishment now fits the crime in these cases. This legislation takes into consideration the total paralyzing fear a victim will experience and how close they have come to death. Strangulation is a demonstration of control, not a loss of it.”
The Police Service of Northern Ireland has already trained 1,560 officers in using this new legislation.
Awareness raising across the Police’s social media channels will begin from this week onwards with a specific focus on sexually motivated strangulation and domestic abuse.
Detective Superintendent Lindsay 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.
“Consciousness can be lost after as little as four seconds. Blocking the jugular vein can take less pressure than opening a can of coke. Loss of consciousness indicates at the very least, a mild brain injury and many victims lose control of their bladder and bowels.
“Often strangulation is glorified as a gratifying act for both parties in pornography and young people in particular are susceptible to thinking this could be a fun, ‘consensual’ act to spice things up. However, the reality is far from the case. Consent to rough sex is no longer a defence.
“We will be working with partners over the next year to raise awareness and make this clear to potential perpetrators.”
Sarah Mason, CEO, Women’s Aid Federation NI said: “Non-fatal strangulation is 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. 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. This offence will require a multi-agency response to address the severity of the crime and understand the links between strangulation, domestic abuse and homicide.”
The Police Service of Northern Ireland have explained this new legislation and the dangers of non-fatal strangulation on their website here: www.psni.police.uk/non-fatal-strangulation
This is a complex offence and there are many different signs and symptoms that may be present following this offence, officers in their new training are being asked to consider the following when attending the scene of a report or speaking with a potential victim:
If you have been the victim of non-fatal strangulation - report to the Police via 101 or call 999 in an emergency.