Domestic Abuse – time for new laws
Currently there is no specific crime or legal framework surrounding offences of domestic abuse, especially psychological harm. This is a major contributory factor into the low charging and conviction rates on domestic abuse in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
In January 2014, a Bill criminalising domestic abuse, and sponsored by the Justice Unions’ and the the Family Courts Group, will be introduced in the House of Commons. The Bill is based on the introduction of laws in parts of the United States which have had a dramatic impact on the reporting of abuse, convictions and subsequent incidents of abuse.
The Bill follows on from the highly successful campaign during 2011/12 for the introduction of stalking laws in England and Wales, which was spearheaded by Elfyn Llwyd MP, Laura Richards, criminal behaviour psychologist, and Harry Fletcher of Napo.
Napo, the Probation Union, believes that this is the first Bill to make domestic abuse a specific offence; by doing so it will signal to professionals that this is very serious and harmful behaviour. It will criminalise a course of conduct or repetitive behaviour by an alleged perpetrator. At present police, courts and prosecutors tend to deal with the current offence and therefore fail to take into account previous abusive behaviour. Criminalising that behaviour, by creating a legal framework, will encourage women to report, the police to properly investigate and the CPS to prosecute. It is rare for there to be just one incident. Most abusers use coercive control and repetitive behaviour against their victims. That coercive control can involve physical, psychological or financial abuse or a combination of all three.
In the UK there are there are scores of domestic violence related homicides or incidents of serious harm every year. Last year 7% of women, according to the Home Office, reported having experienced domestic abuse, which is equivalent to 1.2 million women per year. Two out of three incidents were experienced by repeat victims. The Home Office also reports that in addition two women are killed by a partner, ex-partner or lover per week. Last year 400,000 women were sexually assaulted of whom 70,000 were victims of rape or attempted rape.
Since the age of 16, 30% of women have experienced domestic abuse, which is the equivalent of five million female victims in the UK. Women in the younger age group of 16 to 24 are 14% more likely to be victims of domestic abuse. Women who are separated from their partner are at higher risk of domestic abuse and women living in the East Midlands and Wales are more likely to be victims of abuse than in any other part of the UK.
According to Women’s Aid during the financial year 2011/12 the police reported that they had received nearly 800,000 incidents of domestic abuse. The police also report that domestic abuse accounts for 10% of emergency calls and in addition domestic abuse accounts for between 16% and 25% of all recorded violent crime.
The situation is likely to deteriorate. Under privatisation plans put forward by the government for the probation service most work with perpetrators will be carried out by the private sector. It is also the case that work with victims, carried out by Liaison Units, will also be privatised. It is highly unlikely that this will be a top priority for the private sector as interventions are likely to be expensive. Feedback from abused women about victim liaison is very positive. In addition, if a man is participating in a programme, the probation service normally employs a women’s safety officer who keeps the victim informed and hopefully safe, and offers counselling during the time the man is on the programme.
Repeated research shows that abused women on average do not report to the police, whether psychological or physical, until there have been at least 30 incidents. Research also shows that less than 30% of reports to police resulted in arrest, that only one in six reports lead to a charge, and in just 6.5% of cases is there a conviction. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has recently reported that the number of cases discontinued is also on the increase.
Results also show that the children of abused women are also likely to be harmed. A number of Health Authorities are so concerned that they employ specific counsellors to work with children whose parents are in an abusive relationship. At least 750,000 children in any one year, according to Women’s Aid, witness domestic abuse. In addition 30% of domestic violence starts in pregnancy and that violence has been identified as a prime cause of miscarriages or still birth. Women’s Aid also report that nearly three-quarters of children on the At Risk Register are resident in families where domestic violence occurs and 70% of children living in British refuges have been abused by their father.
Across the UK the police report that they receive a call from members of the public or victims for assistance with domestic violence every minute. This amounts to over 1,300 calls every day. It is thought however only a quarter of incidents are reported to the police.
By contrast, the situation in the United States where specific laws exist is startling. Since laws were introduced at various times over the last 20 years, reporting has increased by nearly 50% and incidents of violence decreased by over a third. Increased reporting has meant there have been more arrests and more convictions and massive savings across all government departments in most States.
The Bill would create a specific offence of domestic abuse, whether it was carried out against the victim or the victim’s children. In terms of sentencing, a court would take into account a course of conduct of domestic abuse and whether that abuse was coercive and controlling. Abuse is defined as physical or psychological or both.
Responsibilities are placed on the police to develop, adopt and implement written policies in respect of domestic abuse. The Bill would also put duties on the police to inform victims of their rights. It would introduce protective orders prohibiting an abuser making contact in any way with the victim and defines abuse as “intentionally, wilfully or recklessly causing, or attempting to cause, physical injury or psychological harm to a person”. It defines abuse as that committed against a person over 16 or that person’s children.
All the above statistics come from Ending Violence against Women and Girls – Home Office 2013 or Women’s Aid (Statistics about domestic violence 2013) or both.