Offenders could be jailed for up to 14 years if US-style legislation is voted through by MPs
The Observer, Saturday 28 December 2013 19.25 GMT
Supporters of the new bill say it would encourage more women to report a crime which is often neglected by the criminal justice system. Photograph: Martin Godwin
MPs from all parties are backing a tough US-style law that would make domestic abuse a specific offence carrying a sentence of up to 14 years in prison.
A new bill, sponsored by the Justice Unions' Group and the All Party Group on Stalking and Harassment, would, for the first time, make sentences reflect whether domestic abuse, both physical and psychological, was part of a pattern of behaviour. It is modelled on legislation introduced in the US that has resulted in a dramatic increase in convictions and reporting of domestic abuse. It follows on from a successful campaign to bring in new stalking laws in England and Wales that were introduced to parliament in similar fashion.
At present there is no specific offence of domestic abuse as defined by criminal law. Instead offenders are prosecuted for crimes such as rape or assault. However, in many cases the police, courts and prosecutors fail to take into account the previous abusive behaviour of an offender. Experts such as the probation service union Napo say this is a concern because it is rare for domestic abuse to be confined to just one incident.
Now the proposed law would provide a legal framework that would make domestic abuse a specific offence and would allow for the examination of an offender's course of conduct over a period of time. Supporters say this would encourage more women to report a crime that is often neglected by the criminal justice system, sometimes with tragic consequences. Research shows that the average victim does not report abuse until subjected to at least 30 incidents. Only 30% of reports to police result in arrest and only one in six reports lead to a charge.
The law would see domestic abuse categorised as both physical and psychological and perpetrated against the victim or the victim's children. It would define abuse as "intentionally, wilfully or recklessly causing, or attempting to cause, physical injury or psychological harm to a person" and introduce protective orders prohibiting an abuser from making contact with their victim.
"It is extraordinary that domestic abuse is not a criminal offence in the UK," said Harry Fletcher, a criminal justice expert and adviser to Napo, who drafted the bill with Paladin.. "As a consequence reporting is low and behaviour is missed by workers in the justice system. Conviction rates are appallingly low at 6.5%. The police and the Crown Prosecution Service tend to deal with the matter before them and not long-term, repetitive abusive behaviour. This bill will make domestic abuse an offence with a maximum sentence of up to 14 years in prison. It will be the first time that an attempt will be made to criminalise a course of domestic abuse in this country."
The bill's supporters believe that it will enjoy broad support in parliament and is likely to become law.
Since similar laws were introduced in the US, reporting of domestic abuse has increased by nearly 50%. Incidents of violence have decreased by more than a third. Ensuring that domestic abuse is recognised in both psychological and physical terms has already been broadly welcomed by senior police officers.
"Domestic abuse is characterised by a catalogue of incidents, a pattern of behaviour which can include coercive control and emotional blackmail as well as physical violence," said Elfyn Llwyd, the Plaid Cymru MP who is presenting the bill to parliament.
"It was positive that the Association of Chief Police Officers last year amended their definition of domestic abuse to have regard of this fact. But it is high time that the criminal law was also amended so that domestic abuse was made a criminal offence in its own right."
According to the Home Office, some 1.2 million women in the UK said they had experienced domestic abuse last year. Two out of three incidents involved repeat victims. Two women are killed by a partner, ex-partner or lover each week. Last year 400,000 women were sexually assaulted, of whom 70,000 were victims of rape or attempted rape.
But the true number of victims is likely to be even higher. Research carried out by Citizens Advice estimates that more than half a million victims of domestic abuse are too frightened to report their experiences