“Domestic abuse has been widespread in England and Wales for many years.”
Not, perhaps, the best way to begin a serious report on domestic abuse.
Domestic abuse is not a recent phenomenon. It has, of course, been widespread since time immemorial. The thing that has changed in recent times is that society has recognised the problem, and attempted to do something about it.
One of the things that has been done is the introduction in 2005 of Specialist Domestic Violence Courts (‘SDVCs’). SDVCs deal with criminal prosecutions of alleged perpetrators of offences involving domestic abuse. Their aim is to increase the number of successful prosecutions and improve victim safety and satisfaction. They do this through, amongst other things, special training of court staff, including magistrates, and special support for victims, from independent domestic violence advisers (‘IDVAs’).
On Monday a report on observations of SDVCs in the Northumbria Magistrates’ Courts was published. The report was commissioned by Dame Vera Baird QC, the police and crime commissioner for Northumbria. The publication led to an eye-catching headline in The Guardian:
“Defendants ‘gaming system’ to get domestic violence cases dropped”
The Guardian explained that defendants in these cases are intimidating their (alleged) victims into not appearing at court, in the expectation that the magistrates will then drop the charges against them. The report, says The Guardian, suggests that cases in which the complainant victim does not appear are too readily dismissed by magistrates.
The Guardian goes on to explain that:
“The defendants, almost all men, continued to exert coercive control over their victims through the mechanism of the court’s system, the study says.”
It also says that too few IDVAs were seen at court, providing support to victims.
Sadly, domestic abuse perpetrators intimidating their victims to stop them proceeding with prosecutions (or, indeed, civil remedies such as non-molestation and occupation orders) is hardly anything new. I came across it right from the outset of my career back in the 1980s. Time and again clients who had clearly been victims of domestic abuse (I could see the scars) would decide not to proceed after all with action against their perpetrators. It was extremely frustrating, especially as you knew that they were highly likely to go back to live with their tormentors and suffer further abuse as a result. The whole scenario was so common that it was one of the reasons back then why the police were rarely interested in domestic abuse complaints – how could they proceed with a prosecution if the complainant withdrew?
We have, at least, made some progress since those days. Whereas then I don’t think any prosecutions ever proceeded without the complainant, now they can proceed. And as the report explains, we should be more understanding of complainants who do not attend. After all:
“For a case to get as far as court a complainant will have called the police, made a statement, agreed to a prosecution, presented a sufficiently strong case for the CPS to lay a charge and indicated their willingness to attend court. Hence s/he will have supported the justice process over a period of months, despite the obvious and innumerable domestic pressures around giving evidence against a partner, whether the coercive control is in play or not. For that reason too, complainants deserve to be treated with tolerance on non-attendance.”
The report goes on to make a number of recommendations as to how the issues it identified may be tackled, including better training for court personnel, encouraging guilty pleas by defendants, adopting a “cautious approach” to the non-appearance of a complainant, remedying the absence of IDVAs, and encouraging complainants to attend.
Hopefully, these recommendations will be acted upon and will make a difference. In the end, though, there is only so much that any system can do. Domestic abuse and coercive control usually happen well beyond the protective arm of the law and its agents, and therefore in many cases, no amount of encouragement or support will be sufficient to counter the fear of further abuse.
That is not to say of course that efforts to deal with domestic abuse when it happens should not continue. However, there is another way: educate people, to stop them from becoming abusers in the first place. The scourge of domestic abuse should be on the school curriculum – every child should be aware that it is not to be tolerated, and of what to do if it happens to them.
As I said at the outset, domestic abuse has been with us forever. We will never eradicate it, but there is always more that we can do to reduce it.