In the Queen’s Speech in June, the Government announced they would publish a draft Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill to ‘transform our approach to domestic violence’. The challenge is immense. Last year it is estimated that 1.2 million women were victims of domestic violence. Two women are killed each week by current or former partner.
Theresa May attaches ‘personal importance’ to tackling domestic violence - and has already led many measures in Government to try and confront it. However, despite the rise of interventions in domestic violent relationships - prosecutions for domestic violence has gone up by 29% from 2010 - the level of violence continues. There is a disconnect between action and results that requires a forensic focus.
Whilst continuing to encourage victims to come forward, policy must also focus on helping victims rebuild their lives. Often they have been solely reliant on the perpetrator – both emotionally and financially. The World Health Organisation says that women who experience domestic violence are twice as likely to experience depression. They have often been forced to move house or live in a women’s refuge to escape violence. According to Shelter, 40% of homeless women state domestic violence as a major contributor to their homelessness. Crucially, this vulnerability can lead to a vicious, self-perpetuating circle of violence - 73% of domestic violence incidents are experienced by a previous victim.
As a barrister regularly appearing in cases featuring domestic violence, I am shocked by the extent to which the justice system is isolated from other services. After interventions from the police, a decision from the CPS to prosecute and a conviction in a court of law after a trial, the victim can remain bewildered by the challenge they face. Too many times I have been asked by the victim, on conviction of a perpetrator, ‘well, what now?’.
The Government propose establishing a Commissioner focused on Domestic Violence to monitor agencies and raise awareness. This is a step in the right direction. However any new body must have the muscle to offer a comprehensive service for victims of domestic violence. This could begin with the presence of formal Advisers at every court to ensure victims receive the information required. These Advisers would be independent of the Local Authority, but have regular contact with social services and housing departments who would report to them. Such an organisation would not just offer practical help, but also ensure there is a single body that can track and monitor results for victims.
The establishment of a Commissioner for Domestic Violence and Abuse should be followed by a radical reform of the way our courts deal with these cases. The Commissioner’s body could mirror CAFCASS, a government-funded agency whose role is to ensure children are prioritised in family courts. In a family jurisdiction, the focus is the welfare of children. Although in criminal courts a fair trial is paramount, when that court does move to the issue of sentencing, a hearing should be held in a domestic abuse specialist court which would hold more powers including orders applied for by the victim.
The hearing could call for submissions from the Commissioner’s Adviser on the needs of the victims, which would include assessments for housing or employment advice, counselling or mental health support, drugs rehabilitation programmes and support for alcohol misuse. The court would not merely punish the offender, but offer practical, tailored support to the victim.
In court, I am often frustrated that offenders have their needs and background assessed by a probation officer for sentencing, while victims leave court alone. An interventionist approach would place renewed emphasis on the victim of domestic violence within our justice system. Although radical, the proposal is not dissimilar to that which intrigued Michael Gove, during his short spell as Justice Secretary, in his study of Texan court practice with Judge-led rehabilitative programmes.
Already there are suspicions that the Bill will fail to grasp the scale of the problem because there is not the political will for fundamental change. The situation – with lives ruined and lost – requires transformative reform of our systems. In France, President Macron has recently declared a ‘cultural war’ against violence towards women, with a five-year emergency plan that includes a simplification of the justice system for victims of rape and assault. Similar urgency, ambition and leadership is required here.
There will inevitably be naysayers – the courts are already struggling after significant cuts and local authority budgets are stretched – but the Government should aim high, consulting with the judiciary, legal groups and campaigners, to build a new mechanism to ensure victims of domestic violence are properly supported. Refocusing our justice system to ensure the victim’s needs are prioritised would be an important start in the war against domestic violence.