For far too long, domestic abuse has been hidden behind closed doors and side-lined as a private matter. Last week, the Sentencing Council announced their new guidelines for sentencing domestic abuse offences and took a major step forward to redress this issue. The new guidelines have recognised for the first time that domestic abuse offences must be treated as ‘particularly serious’ within our criminal justice system.
Together with survivors, we have long been calling for sentencing to reflect the severity of this crime. Domestic abuse is not an isolated offence, it is a repeated pattern of controlling and abusive behaviour that has a long-lasting, devastating impact on survivors and in some cases women have lost their lives at the hands of perpetrators of domestic abuse. In 2016, 78 women were killed by a partner or ex-partner in England and Wales according to the Femicide Census report, a ground-breaking project between Women’s Aid and Karen Ingala Smith.
From our work with survivors, we know that it takes great courage to build up the confidence to report the abuse to the police and proceed to press charges. The court process can be difficult and re-traumatising for survivors; sometimes women are treated as witnesses rather than victims and some find that they are not offered the vital support they need to help them feel safe to give evidence during the process. After a survivor has gone through the distress and difficulty of pressing charges and bringing the case to court, in far too many cases perpetrators of domestic abuse are handed inappropriately lenient sentences for the severity of their crimes.
One survivor revealed that the police who were charging her abusive ex-husband for grievous bodily harm told her that “he would have been treated more quickly and harshly if he had committed GBH on a stranger” despite the long-lasting impact the domestic abuse and this particular assault had on her. She added: “I have been unable to walk or work for 10 months since my husband beat me up putting my business and home at risk and putting me under severe added pressure. In the meantime he has been able to continue working and living his life with no penalty whatsoever.” Treating domestic abuse more lightly than other criminal offences puts survivors at further risk and sends out a dangerous message to perpetrators of domestic abuse that they can get away with it.
Last month, there was an uproar that the triple killer Theodore Johnson was allowed to kill again – and then again. He was finally sentenced to life in prison for murdering former partner Angela Best after he pleaded guilty, but it left many questions about where the justice was for the families of the previous two women he had abused and killed. It highlighted the repeated failures of the criminal justice system to hold perpetrators of abuse to account and recognise the repeated pattern of male violence against women and girls.
The case of Theodore Johnson illustrates why we so desperately need change in how our criminal justice system treats domestic abuse offences and underscores why the new sentencing guidelines signal a positive step forward for our justice system in transforming their response to domestic abuse.
We have long been voicing survivors’ concerns that the criminal justice system does not treat online abuse as seriously as abuse perpetrated offline. We know from our work with survivors that online abuse is often part of a pattern of controlling and abusive behaviours, and new technologies, such as emails, texts, social media and GPS tracking devices, are providing perpetrators with more ways to exert control, instil fear and make it feel as though the abuse is inescapable. It is therefore heartening to see that the new guidelines make clear that online abuse is also a criminal offence and recognises the devastating impact that it causes to survivors.
The new guidelines are a major step forward in giving survivors the confidence that they will be listened to, believed and supported by the criminal justice system. We now urge the Sentencing Council to ensure that it delivers the step-change that survivors need by ensuring that the new guidelines are followed effectively; robust monitoring of how the guidelines are being used will be a critical part of this.
We know the new sentencing guidelines aren’t going to transform the way the criminal justice system operates overnight; a real change in attitudes towards domestic abuse is required. That’s why we are calling for all professionals within the criminal justice system – from frontline police officers through to judges in the criminal and civil courts – to receive comprehensive and ongoing training, co-delivered by specialists like Women’s Aid, on the dynamics of domestic abuse, including coercive control. Only by ensuring that those making decisions within the criminal justice system understand the insidious nature of domestic abuse and its devastating and long-lasting impact on survivors, will we put a stop to inappropriately lenient sentencing for domestic abuse offences and send out a clear message that domestic abuse is unacceptable and that perpetrators will be held accountable for their crimes.