How a Homerton woman stood up to domestic violence and made legal history

Content warning: this post includes some brief textual descriptions of violence and threats against women. Hackney Council’s domestic violence support services can be accessed here.

“Women make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

In 1974 Jennifer Davis was awarded the tenancy of 13 Nisbet House, Homerton High Street. (Nisbet House was built in the 1930s as part of the council’s slum clearances. A previous entry on this blog covers another resident of Nisbet House – tenant activist Bob Darke.)

Jennifer’s partner Nehemiah Johnson was added to the tenancy at his request and they moved in together and later had a daughter. Jennifer was in her late teens, Nehemiah in his late thirties.

Jennifer Davis was the victim of what the court of appeal described as “extreme” violence from Johnson.

Nehemiah’s violence became so extreme that on 18th September 1977 Jennifer was forced to flee with their two and half year old daughter and live in the world’s first Women’s Refuge in Chiswick. Nehemiah then threatened to kill Jennifer – and dump her in the river or chop up her body and put it in the freezer.

This resulted in an important legal case, which Susan Edwards (Professor and Dean of Law at the University of Birmingham) has written about in her chapter of the book Women’s Legal Landmarks: Celebrating the history of women and law in the UK and Ireland.

Parliament had recently passed The Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act 1976 (DVMPA). The act originated as a Private Members Bill authored by Jo Richardson MP, and was the culmination of many years’ campaigning by the women’s liberation movement.

But laws are of little consequence until they are put to the test in court. Someone has to have the unfortunate privilege of being first – and this time Jennifer Davis was one of the women to take on that mantle.

On 11th October 1977 Jennifer applied to Brentford County Court under section 1 of the DVMPA for injunctions restraining the Nehemiah from using violence against her and ordering him to vacate the flat and stay at least half a mile away from it. (It seems reasonable to speculate that she was assisted by the staff at the women’s refuge and perhaps others in doing this.)

“The judge found that the violence and threats of violence, to which Miss Davis had been subjected, were of a horrifying nature. He thought that there was a real risk of further violence in the future. […] The exclusion of [Johnson] from the flat and the prohibition upon his return were necessary to protect Miss Davis and her child in their own home.”

Lord Scarman, 1978

The injunctions were granted. But Johnson appealed – and sickeningly was successful in being granted the ability to return to the flat. The legal arguments around this essentially boiled down to a conflict between property rights and the right to live without exposure to violence. This may not come as too much of surprise to my more cynical readers. (There is more to say here about the historical legacy of women being deemed to be the property of men, for example in marriage – and the struggle to gain the vote, etc).

Jennifer Davis in turn appealed this decision, which lead to further wrangling by men in wigs. The Court of Appeal found in her favour by a majority of three to two judges. The original judgement was restored. According to Lorraine Radford this led to some sexist furore about the decision being “a mistresses’ charter”.

On returning to her flat in Homerton, Jennifer found it completely stripped of all its furniture.

Johnson would not let it lie and appealed once again to the House of Lords (it would be interesting to know where he was getting his funding and advice from?). The profile and importance of the case ensured that Jennifer was well supported on the day:

The Times 18 January 1978

The discussion in the Lords included the out of touch snark characteristic of the place and era, including several references to the “child of their illicit union” who was also “illegitimate”.

But to their credit, the Lords agreed that unmarried women should be treated the same as married ones in this regard and also dismissed Nehemiah Johnson’s appeal, establishing an important legal precedent. William Twining and David Miers describe the decision as “a leading case on the doctrine of precedent and the use of extrinsic aids to interpretation”.

I’m sure this was of less value to Jennifer Davis than being able to live with her daughter in peace in their flat in Homerton. And to the women that followed her…

Jennifer Davis and daughter Cordelia celebrating with Erin Pizzey (right) and Tina Wood of Chiswick Women’s Aid

Susan Davis concludes:

“Without doubt Davis v Johnson was a turning point in both law and judicial understanding of domestic violence. The problem of domestic violence, despite these changes, remains a significant problem in its extent and the failings of the criminal justice response. Over a quarter of women have experienced domestic abuse since the age of 16. On average two women in England and Wales are killed by their current or former partner every week. Cuts to legal aid are making it significantly harder for women to access the courts to protect themselves and their family.”

The problem of domestic violence has recently been greatly exacerbated by the COVID-19 lockdown.

Sources / Further Reading / Plagiarism

Susan Davis “Davis v Johnson (1978)” in Erika Rackley, Rosemary Auchmuty (eds) – Women’s Legal Landmarks: Celebrating the history of women and law in the UK and Ireland (Bloomsbury 2018)

Lorraine Radford – The Law and Domestic Violence Against Women (PhD thesis, 1988) https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/136499.pdf

William Twining and David Miers – How to Do Things with Rules: A Primer of Interpretation (Cambridge University Press, 2010)

House of Lords Decisions: Davis v Johnson [1978] UKHL 1 (09 March 1978) http://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKHL/1978/1.html

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