Domestic Violence: Terror, Threat And Balance
Published on 06 March, 2023 | Katie Welton-Dillon
There is, of course, a famous old saying that “an Englishman’s home is his castle”.
However, the scourge of domestic violence means that home is anything but a place of refuge for many individuals.
It is heartening, therefore, to hear that the Government is intensifying its efforts to eradicate the threat which people face from their partners.
Ministers have, in the last week or so, announced a series of measures which they maintain “go further than ever before in protecting women and girls from harassment, aggression and violence, and focus on stopping domestic abuse before it takes place” (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/domestic-abusers-face-crackdown-in-raft-of-new-measures).
The initiatives include treating controlling or coercive behaviour with the kind of severity previously reserved only for actual physical violence.
To make sure that offenders “don’t fall through the cracks”, there will be improved co-ordination between the various agencies, such as police, probation and prison services.
Arguably the most eye-catching advance contained in a new strategic policing requirement, however, is the idea that “violence against women and girls” will be treated as a national threat, putting it on the same footing as terrorism and organised crime.
The announcement has been rightly applauded as another sign that Westminster recognises the harm which such offences generate for those – partners and children alike – who suffer at the hands of offenders.
It follows last summer’s decision to prevent individuals accused of domestic abuse from cross-examining their alleged victims in the family and civil courts
The topic of abuse is a troubling and recurrent theme in the workload of many family lawyers like myself and my colleagues at Hall Brown. Allegations of such behaviour feature in a substantial number of the cases handled across our four offices.
Just as ministers recognise the practical necessity of these new initiatives, they will also be aware of strong criticism of the official approach to domestic abuse.
Only recently, the pop singer Mel B – a patron of the domestic violence charity
Women’s Aid – suggested that she and other victims of abuse had little faith that complaints would be taken “seriously” by police (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/1486d906-b842-11ed-a513-158bcb2665eb?shareToken=5d881e8d32a7009692879095d82762c2).
Her position might be regarded as having some credence by those viewing the latest official statistics.
Data published in January revealed that although there had been a 3.7 per cent rise in the number of abuse allegations referred to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) between July and September last year, the number of individuals charged was 2.6 per cent lower than the previous three months (https://www.cps.gov.uk/publication/cps-data-summary-quarter-2-2022-2023#:~:text=Domestic%20abuse,-Referrals%20from%20the&text=There%20were%2017%2C874%20referrals%20from,17%2C231%20in%20Q1%2022%2F23.&text=Timeliness-,The%20average%20time%20from%20first%20submission%20by%20the%20police%20to,25.8%20in%20Q2%2022%2F23).
Furthermore, the proportion of convictions for domestic abuse was also down 2.1 per cent on the same period.
The volume of domestic abuse issues dealt with by the family rather than the criminal courts also shows no sign of halting.
In November, figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that the number of court orders made in 2021 to try and remedy the problem had risen almost 50 per cent in the space of only five years (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/bulletins/domesticabuseinenglandandwalesoverview/november2022#domestic-abuse-in-england-and-wales-data).
Just as the Government has reiterated the importance of being rigorous in addressing allegations of abuse, family courts have very detailed guidelines to ensure that these matters are properly considered and managed whenever they arise (https://www.justice.gov.uk/courts/procedure-rules/family/practice_directions/pd_part_12j).
We should remember that regardless of the Government emphasis in publicising its latest measures, it’s not only “women and girls” who are affected.
The ONS’ data illustrates that out of the estimated 2.4 million individuals in England and Wales who were victims of abuse in the 12 months to March last year, 699,000 – just under 30 per cent – were men.
Only last month, Sheree Smith was jailed for four years for subjecting her husband to 15 years of physical attacks and controlling behaviour which a judge Hull Crown Court said left him with psychological damage which would “last a lifetime” (https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-11790319/Prison-reform-boss-subjected-husband-15-years-abuse-jailed-four-years.html).
Stronger punitive measures are essential but professionals and commentators acknowledge that they need to be allied to education to be truly effective.
Almost 15 years after ministers outlined how school pupils would be taught about the dangers of abuse (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8376943.stm), only concerted action will be capable of breaking the cycle of domestic violence and allow victims to finally feel safe in their own homes.