When I began practising as a family lawyer back in the early 1980s, domestic violence was almost exclusively a civil matter. I certainly dealt with a lot of domestic violence cases. Meanwhile, the police would generally not want to get involved in a ‘domestic’, unless it involved the commission of a very serious offence.
Times have certainly changed. I don’t know how much domestic violence work is done now by family lawyers compared to previously, but I certainly remember the amount I did dropping off towards the end of my time practising. At the same time, the involvement of the police in domestic violence matters has increased dramatically.
The issue of domestic violence was raised in the House of Commons on Tuesday of this week. Former Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families Tim Loughton asked what recent steps the Crown Prosecution Service (‘CPS’) had taken to ensure that prosecutors are able more effectively to prosecute cases of domestic violence. In reply the Solicitor-General stated:
“New guidance on handling cases of domestic abuse was announced by the Director of Public Prosecutions on 29 December last year, and that will help the CPS to deal effectively with a projected 20,000 more cases this year than two years ago. The updated guidance sets out the handling of all aspects of domestic abuse offending, including the many ways that abusers can control, coerce and psychologically abuse their victims. The new proposed offence of coercive and controlling behaviour announced by the Home Secretary will be introduced in the Serious Crime Bill.”
Mr Loughton then raised the important issue of children and domestic violence, and asked what is being done to protect children from domestic violence abusers. The Solicitor-General replied:
“The CPS guidelines are clear that the presence of children must be treated as an aggravating factor when deciding whether or not to prosecute. Often, criminal justice procedures are difficult for children and young people, who feel that they have to take sides, and special measures are available if they have to give evidence. I will do everything I can to ensure that children are protected within the criminal justice system.”
The Solicitor-General was subsequently asked whether the Serious Crime Bill would receive royal assent before the end of this Parliament, to which he replied that he hoped it would.
The discussion of domestic violence concluded with Kelvin Hopkins MP referring to recent reports suggesting that cuts to legal aid have been putting victims of domestic violence at a disadvantage, and even deterring them from pursuing their cases at law. He asked whether the Attorney-General would be making representations to the Justice Secretary on this matter. Unfortunately, the Solicitor-General dodged the question, replying:
“My particular concern is the prosecution of cases involving domestic abuse. I am happy to say that numbers continue to rise, both in terms of the proportion of conviction rates and the absolute number of police referrals. In fact, we have now reached the highest number of police referrals ever recorded.”
It is a shame that the question was not properly answered. Still, it is interesting that we now have the highest ever number of police referrals of domestic violence. Clearly, not only are the police now taking the issue seriously, but the public seem to have become much more confident that they will do so.
When I was practising I was always worried that a domestic violence injunction was just a piece of paper and that, unlike the presence of a police officer or two, it was unlikely to deter the determined abuser. Hopefully, the full involvement of the police and the criminal justice system will help to discourage abusers and reduce the scourge of domestic violence.
Photo by Javier Díaz Barrera via Flickr