Strengthening the law
Last month (21 August 2014), the Home Office published a new consultation on whether the law on domestic violence needed strengthening.
No-one now denies the scale and extent of domestic violence and the latest Crime Survey for England Wales (CSEW) shows just how pervasive the problem is – suggesting that 30% of women and 16.3% of men will experience domestic abuse during their lifetimes.
The consultation highlights recent progress but makes it clear that more still needs to be done.
Progress includes an increase in the number of victims reporting the domestic abuse they have suffered to the police. The latest CPS figures show that the number of domestic abuse cases being referred by the police for prosecution is at a record high (103,569 cases in the last year). Conviction rates are also up, rising from 59.7% to 74.6% between 2005/6 and 2013/14.
Reasons for the consultation
There have been a number of recent government initiatives designed to improve the response to domestic violence:
- Domestic Violence Protection Orders are designed to prevent the onus being on the victim to leave an abusive home. DVPOs require the perpetrator to leave the scene of their abuse, and can prevent them from returning to a residence and from having contact with the victim for up to 28 days.
- The Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme (better known as Clare’s Law) entitles members of the public to get information from the police about previous violent offending by a new or existing partner.
- In March 2013, the definition of domestic violence and abuse was extended to include coercive and controlling behaviour.
However, these have had limited impact in improving the police response to domestic abuse and Theresa May commissioned HMIC to undertake a comprehensive review.
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At present, there is no specific offence of domestic abuse outlining that coercive and controlling behaviour in an intimate relationships is criminal. The behaviours are captured in stalking and harassment legislation, but do not explicitly apply to intimate relationships.
Some experts have argued that this means the law is ambiguous and perpetrators of domestic abuse are committing criminal acts but not being brought to justice.
However, there are arguments for and against a new law.
Those in favour argue that the police fail to see domestic abuse, particularly in its non-violent form, as a serious crime. Acts that are clearly criminal are not referred for prosecution and arrest rate varies widely. Creating a specific offence of domestic abuse may send a clear, consistent message to frontline agencies that non-violent control in an intimate relationship is criminal. Explicitly capturing this in legislation may also help victims identify the behaviour they are suffering as wrong and encourage them to report it, and cause perpetrators to realise they must change their behaviour or face the legal consequences.
Those against say that creating a new offence merely duplicates existing stalking and harassment legislation, and would distract frontline agencies from the fundamental operational changes that are urgently needed to apply the existing legislation effectively. There are also concerns that a new law might deter some victims from accessing the criminal justice system for help.
The consultation runs for 8 weeks – until 15 October 2014. The Home Office is particularly interested to hear from “victims of domestic abuse, organisations representing victims, the police, criminal justice practitioners, front line workers, service providers and local authorities.”
The consultation asks four key questions:
- Does the current law adequately provide sufficient protection to victims of domestic abuse?
- In what ways could the law be strengthened?
- How would any changes you suggest be practically implemented?
- Does the current law sufficiently capture the Government’s non-statutory definition of domestic abuse?
If you have the expertise or experience to contribute, please do.