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Tackling Domestic Violence by Teaching Lawyers to Recognise Abuse

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Christmas Day has come and gone for another year.

Many of us - including me - will return to work this week a little heavier than we were a few days ago.

The festive season is one of the most stressful times on the calendar not least because we tend to work ourselves up into a frenzy before the big day buying Christmas presents and creating food mountains in our kitchens and utility rooms.

However, the primary reason our nerves are somewhat frayed is because we are cooped up in our homes with our families for an extended period of time and overdosing on turkey and alcohol.

Domestic violence survivors fear this time of year because the abuse they suffer is likely to intensify over the holidays.

You need look no further than the case of alcoholic Matthew Barnes who hit his partner in the face and damaged her Christmas tree because he was upset about not receiving any presents from his mother, as the Plymouth Herald reported last week.

UK police forces, refuges, charities and support groups have been on a heightened state of alert ready to deal with the predicted spike in the number of incidents.

Research by the national charity Women's Aid shows two women are killed each week by their partner or ex-partner and one in four women will experience DV in their lifetime.

Almost one million women experience at least one incident of DV each year. (2009/10 British Crime Survey) and at least 750,000 children a year witness it (Department of Health 2002). Given that DV is under reported, these startling statistics may only be the tip of the iceberg.
Having interviewed countless DV survivors from all types of backgrounds, classes and races, I discovered that many did not recognise they were in an abusive relationship.

Only last week I spoke to a man who left his partner following a six-year relationship during which she stubbed out cigarettes on his body and self-harmed so he would be arrested by the police for attacking her.

He told me: "Even though I thought about killing myself I was not aware I was suffering from domestic violence."

What is also plainly evident is that the legal process is still failing victims. Why is this so?
The Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, admitted earlier this month that "it is only in the last ten years that it has been taken seriously as a criminal justice issue". There is no specific offence of DV under criminal law and maybe that is part of the problem.

Under part IV of the 1996 Family Law Act, it is defined as "any form of physical, sexual or psychological molestation or harassment".

The Home Secretary Theresa May has recently unveiled a plan to revise the law to include protection for under 18s.

The new Cross-Government Consultation will also consider amending the definition to include "coercive control" - using power and psychological control over another..
Putting aside the coalition government's tinkering at the fringes of the legal definition, the complex psychological dynamics of DV also pose a problem for the lawyers who deal with the cases in court, according former prosecutor Angela Jouanneau.

Ms Jouanneau recently began teaching an independent DV course to students undertaking a graduate diploma in law at BPP University College of Professional Studies, based in London.

The 12-week module called The Freedom Programme is aimed at helping victims to "identify characteristics and patterns of behaviour pertaining to the core belief systems of their abusers".

It was developed in 1999 by former probation officer Pat Craven; a culmination of her experiences working with violent offenders.

According to Ms Jouanneau, the students analyse the psychological strategies the abuser - referred to as 'The Dominator' - exploits to control the victim such as using the children as a weapon in the courts or threatening to kill himself/herself and the children.

The private university has adopted this more "holistic approach" to educating its law students because she petitioned its board of directors.

Ms Jouanneau believes the programme will "make them more effective as lawyers".

She said: "I wish I had done the course because I would have been in a much better position to understand why recipients of domestic abuse behaved in the way they did - i.e retracting statements, asking for contact bans to be lifted.

"The effects of a retraction are devastating for future prosecutions as the victim will be portrayed as 'flaky and unreliable' by the defence and, at worst, a serial liar."

The point she makes is a valid one.

Unsurprisingly, the reaction to the introduction of the Freedom Programme at BPP has been mixed. The Law Society has welcomed it but ManKind Initiative chairman, Mark Brooks, argues it does not acknowledge male victims.

In response to his claim, Ms Craven says men do attend the courses she runs across Britain.

What cannot be denied is that it is a new approach to an old contentious issue.

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