THE BLOG

The Police And State Agencies Must Do More To Protect Victims Of Domestic Violence

10/04/2017 16:09

In my 38 years working on the front line against domestic violence I have seen time and again how the justice system can fail women and girls when they need it most.

Yet even I was shocked when I read that a Manchester court had sentenced Mustafa Bashir to only an 18-month suspended sentence for attacking a woman with a cricket bat and forcing pills and bleach into her mouth.

And when I read that the sentencing judge had described Fakhara Karim, Bashir's victim, as 'less vulnerable' because she had friends and a degree, I was dismayed to hear somebody in a position of authority giving credence to such an outdated and dangerous misconception.

This is not an isolated incident: it is just one example of how our courts, prosecutors, and police still lack proper understanding of the complexity and nature of domestic violence and are not equipped to handle such cases properly. That has to change.

It will take an end-to-end overhaul of attitudes and practice to make real change happen. Those in authority live in the same society as the rest of us, and without proper training are very likely to believe the same damaging myths as so many others.

The suggestion that certain women are 'less vulnerable' is a particularly dangerous one. Take it from me: there is no such thing as a typical victim. The root cause of domestic violence is negative attitudes towards women found across society. Judges, who occupy a very privileged and powerful position in society and whose public statements will shape the views of many others, must be properly educated in the reality of domestic abuse.

As long as the idea persists that it is only women of a certain type or class who are at risk then many women in real danger will not seek help - and will not be taken seriously when they do. People working in the justice system must be properly trained to take every victim seriously.

When the authorities fail to act, the consequences for women can be lethal. Just last year Shana Grice, a young woman of just 19, had her throat slit by her ex-boyfriend, who had been stalking her. Tragically she had gone to the police several times - but instead of help, she got a fixed-penalty notice for 'wasting police time'.

Police officers need proper training in how to handle domestic violence situations: basic things like removing the perpetrator from the scene and interviewing the victim separately must become standard practice across the country.

It may also be time to consider removing police discretion in incidents of domestic violence. Discretion is a very important part of British policing, but when it puts women in danger we must be prepared to try the alternatives. We could at least explore the possibility of introducing pilot policies like mandatory arrest and charge for domestic violence cases where there are reasonable grounds an assault has taken place or may take place. This approach has already been introduced in other countries such as Canada.

Meanwhile the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), despite the excellent leadership shown by the Director of Public Prosecutions, must do more to make sure that every domestic violence case receives a charge appropriate to the offence. In Refuge's experience, and that of many women we talk to, the CPS routinely under-charges in such cases.

Bashir is a case in point: by forcing bleach into his wife's mouth he put her at risk of serious injury, and yet he appeared in court facing only a charge of Actual Bodily Harm, rather than the more serious Grievous Bodily Harm.

Every crime comes with its own set of sentencing guidelines, so when the CPS choose a less-serious charge it limits the sentence a perpetrator receives - and thus the safety and wellbeing of the victim.

Judges, for their part, must be properly educated about the profound and life-long impact that domestic violence can have on women and children. Only then can they properly account for the needs and experiences of the victim when passing sentence. Mandatory training is the best way to make sure that the judiciary has a strong and consistent understanding of the complex nature of domestic violence.

Even when the CPS does bring an inadequate charge, the sentencing guideline rules allow judges to set them aside when they are contrary to the interests of justice - yet too many fail to do so.

A justice system that meets the needs of women and children fleeing domestic violence is in everyone's interests - on any given day Refuge is protecting five thousand victims who are in serious or even mortal danger.

But we cannot reach them all, and every week in England and Wales two women are killed by a current or former partner and many more are terrorised and brutalised in homes up and down the country.

In all my years at Refuge one of the biggest battles has been getting society and the authorities to treat domestic violence as seriously as other crime - in fact to realise that it is more serious. Could you feel safe in your own home if you knew a man who had violently attacked you might still have a key to the front door?

There is no denying that we have made great progress since I started, but sadly it is also clear we still have farther to go. Theresa May's review of existing legislation into domestic violence is a welcome start; she has shown leadership and commitment to combating violence against women. But we need much more far-reaching reform of the criminal justice system.

Women have a right to know that our courts and police will keep them safe and give them justice. The real scandal is that in Britain today too many of them know they won't.

If you're experiencing domestic violence, you're not alone. Please visit www.refuge.org.uk.

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