In July 2007 new law in respect of domestic abuse was rolled out in the form of the Domestic Violence Crime and Victims Act 2004. This changed the way the courts dealt with incidents of abuse. Previously, if a victim of domestic abuse had a non molestation order, a breach of that was dealt with as a contempt of court. In brief, what happened was the abuser was arrested, kept in custody, brought before the court usually within hours, and dealt with, usually by way of a custodial sentence, which could be suspended for the first breach.
The statistics surrounding domestic abuse are shocking:
- Every week in England and Wales, 2 women are killed by their partner or ex-partner.
- Over half of all reported rapes were committed by the victim’s partner or ex-partner.
- 45% women and 26% men will experience at least one incident of inter-personal violence in their lifetimes.
- The police receive a report of domestic abuse every minute. Despite that high figure, only between a quarter and a third of all incidents are reported to the police.
- In any one year, there are 13 million separate incidents of physical violence or threats of violence against women from partners or former partners.
In July 2007 new law in respect of domestic abuse was rolled out in the form of the Domestic Violence Crime and Victims Act 2004. This changed the way the courts dealt with incidents of abuse. Previously, if a victim of domestic abuse had a non molestation order, a breach of that was dealt with as a contempt of court. In brief, what happened was the abuser was arrested, kept in custody, brought before the court usually within hours, and dealt with, usually by way of a custodial sentence, which could be suspended for the first breach. The new law made a breach a criminal offence, with a prosecution being handled via the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). Largely the feeling in the legal professional and the judiciary at the time could be summarised as “it isn’t broken…why are we fixing it”?
By July 2008, after a year in practice, the problems with the new law were more than apparent. Writing in the July 2008 edition of Family Law, District Judge Millward, the President of the Association of HM District Judges, very bluntly stated that she felt the new law simply wasn’t working. The main issue surrounded the involvement of the CPS, which was not recommending prosecution of breaches because the circumstances did not meet the requirements of the Code for Prosecutors. The issue was that the only evidence would be the word of the victim against that of the abuser, and while this is normal in cases of domestic abuse, the Code required some form of corroborative evidence which in the majority of cases simply did not exist. Even at that early stage, District Judge Millward strongly made the point that if the statistics bear out then anecdotal evidence the Act ought to be repealed and we should revert to the old law.
At that stage, while I was saddened that it appeared the Act was not working, I was heartened to see that the issue was getting immediate attention and hoped the situation would be resolved swiftly.
Around the same time the Government was very aware that it appeared that the new legislation was leading to victims either not receiving the protection or in some cases the justice they deserved, and were keeping a close eye on the issue. Following a question in the House of Commons, Bridget Prentice, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, gave this answer on 25th November 2008:
“The Ministry will continue to monitor the levels of applications and orders for non-molestation orders and is working with the judiciary and stakeholders to improve the family and criminal justice systems response to victims of domestic violence.”
So another year on, where are we now?
Well, firstly it appears that following the initial dip in applications for protective orders following the new law coming into force, applications have now risen. According to the Ministry of Justice statistics for Q1 2008-Q1 2009: “The number of applications to the county courts for domestic violence remedies increased from 5,900 in the first quarter of 2008 to 6,600 in the first quarter of 2009."
Secondly the Government is apparently continuing to deal with the issue of domestic abuse across many areas, in terms of rising awareness, increasing support, and improving the criminal justice process according to the recently published National Domestic Violence Delivery Plan Annual Report for 2008-2009.
In terms of victims receiving justice, we are told that since March 2009 we now have 122 Special Domestic Violence Courts and that: “The Crown Prosecution Service met its target of 72% for successful prosecutions and the number of unsuccessful outcomes in domestic violence cases fell significantly, alongside a reduction in cases that have been discontinued". However, the figure of 72% is drawn from offences charged, not reported, so we do not know from this report how many cases the CPS is refusing to prosecute because they do not meet their Code in terms of evidence, which is where we started.
According to the Home Affairs Sixth Report printed 20 May 2008, the conviction rate for reported (my emphasis) incidents is around 5% - a vastly different figure than the trumpeted 72% conviction rate. With respect, it is not difficult to have a high conviction rate if one only prosecutes the cases that are likely to lead to a conviction.
Woman’s Aid, the national domestic violence charity sums up the situation thus: “The police receive a domestic violence call every minute in the UK but less than 5% are likely to result in a successful conviction in the courts, and even when they do, as in the case of Ricardo Morrison, the outcome does not protect vulnerable women.
It takes great courage for victims of domestic violence to report their situation to the police and they need to have faith in the criminal justice process. Ineffective, low sentences do not provide protection and often deter women from reporting domestic violence to the police. The move away from custodial sentences, lack of effective perpetrator programmes and shortage of community based specialist support services run by organisations like Women’s Aid also continue to place women and their children at risk.”
To have a conviction rate of 5% for domestic violence in 2009 in a western civilised country is truly shocking. It lets down not only the direct victims of these offences, but also the ¾ of a million children who each year witness these offences. One wonders how the cycle of domestic abuse, which is summarised as: “children who live with domestic violence will learn that abuse is acceptable, and as they grow up, will tend to become either perpetrators of abuse or victims, largely depending on whether they are boys or girls” will ever end if those very same children realise that for these victims, justice simply does not exist.
If you are a victim of domestic abuse and require support, please contact Women’s Aid on 0808 2000 247