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Fiction vs Family Law: Rob and Helen – when domestic abuse turns deadly

8th April 2016

Earlier this week The Archers concluded its two and a half year long story line exploring the insidious nature of emotional abuse within romantic relationships. Before Christmas I noted the long running BBC radio soap had picked up the topic of reproductive coercion, and what that would mean after new emotional abuse laws were introduced at the end of last year. Now, Rob and Helens relationship has come to an explosive end.

In the dramatic dénouement of Sundays episode, Rob is heard placing a knife in Helens hand and urging her to stab herself, stating it will be the only way she can ever escape him. Helen had been attempting to exit their relationship, and as Ive observed before, this is almost always the most dangerous time for women suffering from domestic abuse. Between 50% and 75% of domestic homicides take place after the woman has exited the relationship. But this was not to be Helens fate. Instead of taking her husbands advice, she turned the knife on him.

Personally, I found this to be a rather disappointing crescendo. For a well-crafted, nuanced storyline that dealt with complex family law issues to crash headfirst into criminal law feels like something of a cop-out. Its also been done many times before, even on the BBC. In the early 2000s, EastEnders had Little Mo Mitchell attempt to murder her then-husband Trevor after years of physical, sexual and psychological abuse. While it may be rather dramatic, it stops these shows from taking a look at what the aftermath of abuse can look like, both from a legal and psychological perspective, and it doesnt reflect reality.

That said, there are some very positive real-world ramifications of Rob and Helens storyline. Polly North, the chief executive of Womens Aid, told the BBC that the National Domestic Abuse Helpline has seen a 20% rise in the number of women reporting domestic abuse over the past 12 months, something she believed to be at least partly related to The Archers. And these may still be hope for this storyline, at least in terms of its representation of family law issues. Yesterdays episode made it clear that Rob hasnt succumbed to his wounds – at least not yet – so while there will undoubtedly be a criminal law aspect in the programmes future, there may be scope for other issues to be discussed as well.

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