R v Ahluwalia and the Southall Black Sisters

Published 27th April 2018
R v Ahluwalia; a case which sparked changes in the law of murder and voluntary manslaughter, and raised awareness of domestic violence in non-English speaking families. But who were the campaigners that made the change possible?

Kiranjit Ahluwalia was found guilty of murder in 1989, after setting alight her abusive husband’s bed whilst he slept. After her trial, her legal team told her that there would be no chance for appeal, and she began her sentence of life in prison.

The Southall Black Sisters (SBS), a non-profit group who work to defend the human rights of black and minority women, heard about Kiranjit’s case from the Crawley Women’s Centre. SBS began to offer her help, by making arrangements for her two sons and providing support throughout her time in prison. But, sensing injustice, they began efforts to appeal for a mistrial. Kiranjit had previously not felt able to speak in depth about the abuse she suffered, but with the SBS’s help, she was able. SBS also began to search for a lawyer to represent the case. This was when they found Rohit Sanghvi, who went on to advise SBS in their campaign without legal aid. Together, they worked tirelessly to produce grounds for appeal.

In 1992, the Court of Appeal overturned Kiranjit’s conviction on the grounds of insufficient counsel – Kiranjit had not been aware she could plead guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. Although they rejected her plea of provocation, the Court of Appeal accepted that the ‘sudden and temporary loss of control’ required for the plea of provocation was biased against women. While men sometimes killed suddenly when they lost their temper, women may not behave in the same way in the context of domestic violence. In response to this, the Court accepted cumulative provocation, which opened up the defence to other victims of domestic violence. The Court also accepted Kiranjit’s plea of diminished responsibility as she was suffering from severe depression. As she had already served three years and four months in prison, she was released.

The outcome of the case would not have been possible but for the efforts of the Southall Black Sisters. They not only worked on Kiranjit’s appeal, but mobilised the public into action, conducting demonstrations and meetings to highlight the prejudices in the criminal system, which received a great deal of media attention.

Founded in 1979 after the death of anti-fascist activist Blair Peach who had taken part in a demonstration against a National Front rally, SBS has expanded since then, aiming to ‘challenge violence against women; empower them to gain more control over their lives; live without fear of violence; and assert their human rights to justice, equality and freedom.’ Most recently, they are campaigning for justice for Seeta Kaur, a woman who was killed in suspicious circumstances following abuse from her husband. SBS is calling for reforms on honour-based violence against British nationals and is working closely with lawyers to challenge the acts which have occurred.

SBS also provide ‘information, advice, advocacy, practical help, counselling and support to women and children experiencing domestic and other forms of gender-related violence.’ They help women to gain legal representation, and support them throughout the process, and also work with public bodies, social services and courts when they believe their duties have not been conducted. They create reports of legal cases in gender-related abuse and undertake research and campaign for change in the law.

Following the case of R v Ahluwalia, the group has thrived, raising awareness of domestic violence in non-British families, holding the law to account, and working tirelessly to challenge the legal framework and prejudices which may be innate in the law, or in the cultures of the families they support. Without their attention to Kiranjit’s case, Britain would not have seen the media attention on domestic violence and the law may not have changed as soon as it did. The groups’ close work with lawyers and victims, providing emotional and legal support has paved the way for changes in law, and changes in many women’s lives.

Written by Francesca Rowe-Weller, third-year Law student at the University of Cardiff