Last Sunday, as I’m sure you are aware, was International Women’s Day. To mark the event the government, as it has done since 2011, published a progress report in respect of its campaign to end violence against women and girls (which, throughout the report, is reduced to the rather awkward initialism VAWG).
The report proudly sets out the government’s achievements since the beginning of this Parliament in tackling all forms of VAWG, both in the UK and overseas. These include such notable things as:
- Providing stable funding of £40 million between 2011 and 2015 to provide a ‘critical bedrock’ of support to victims of domestic and sexual abuse;
- Introducing new legislation and law enforcement tools including the criminalisation of forced marriage, new stalking laws, the national roll-out of Domestic Homicide Protection Orders and the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme;
- Recognising that domestic abuse affects young people as well and revising their definition of domestic abuse accordingly;
- Reforming frontline agencies’ response to VAWG by driving a culture change in the police response through the HM Inspectorate of Constabulary review, new guidance and training for healthcare professionals and the promotion of partnership approaches; and
- Significantly scaling up their work to tackle VAWG overseas with a 63 per cent increase in UK-funded VAWG programmes implemented in 29 countries across the world since 2012.
As with all government documents these days, it all sounds so marvellous. However, the struggle against the scourge of domestic violence isn’t about political point-scoring. In fact, I found the self-congratulatory tone of the report so nauseating that I couldn’t manage to read beyond the Executive Summary.
But I also found it nauseating for another reason. The list of the government’s ‘achievements’ in that summary is somewhat selective. In particular it does not mention the legal aid changes that the government brought in in April 2013, including requiring victims of domestic violence to produce evidence of the violence in order to obtain access to legal aid. As highlighted recently by Citizens Advice, the changes have left domestic violence victims struggling to receive justice, with many faced with the stark choice of having to represent themselves in court when they seek protective injunctions, or taking no action at all, possibly remaining with their abusers.
There is also the problem of alleged abusers not obtaining representation, with legal aid no longer available for them. This can lead to the highly unsatisfactory situation of the victim of domestic violence being cross-examined in court by their abusers, a prospect that will surely deter many victims from taking action. The situation has become so serious that the President of the Family Division recently outlined research to be undertaken by the Ministry of Justice on litigants in person accused of domestic abuse cross-examining vulnerable or intimidated witnesses in private family proceedings. The aim of the research is to explore the powers available to manage these cases and seek to establish what else could be considered to support both the management of the cases and protection of vulnerable witnesses.
One would hope that in an area as important as dealing with domestic violence that over time all changes would be part of a continuous progress for the better, reducing the instances of domestic violence, protecting and supporting the victims. Unfortunately, this government’s record has not, as its ministers would have you think, all been a case of progress for the better.
The full report can be read here.