Cedal, The Campaign for Effective Domestic Abuse Laws, seeks an urgent cross-party review of the legislation, informed by reason and evidence, not ideology. It was founded by a former solicitor now sitting on her local Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner’s domestic abuse scrutiny panel.
With domestic abuse now dubbed an ‘epidemic’ by a top police chief, its annual social and economic cost rivalling the defence budget – and what The Observer terms ‘the grim toll of femicide’ at its highest level since 2006 – demands for ever-more, little-used criminal laws sound increasingly desperate. With call-outs averaging three a minute, largely to the same households, police already spend 40% of their time vainly battling an issue to which they are urged to give even more priority.
Yet, frustratingly, we once had effective legislation to combat domestic abuse. The spark was the redoubtable ErinPizzey whose 1970’s drop-in centre for women and children in Chiswick soon became a refuge. Her battles with the local council, with frequent court appearances for overcrowding, dominated the news for months, prompting parliament to act.
Pizzey’s ‘battered wives,’ like today’s victims, did not see criminal proceedings as remotely helpful at that most dangerous time, around separation, when most deaths and serious injuries occur. Nor did they want to criminalise their children’s fathers. Their goal was lasting protection, not retribution. But with surrounding issues unresolved, many drifted back to their abusers, some to their deaths. A cross-party group of MPs met to forge strong, preventative legislation.
The Domestic Violence Act 1976 introduced family court non-molestation orders, an enhanced form of civil injunction. Limited to heterosexual couples, speedily obtainable, typically lasting ayear, they instructed (‘enjoined’) a respondent not to intimidate, pester, harass, use or threaten violence against the applicant or children of the family, either directly or through anyone else.
There was no need for past behaviour to be admitted or proved, only that it should not happen in future. Breaking (‘breaching’) an injunction was swiftly punished as contempt of court. Namely, respondents had to show why they should not be committed for up to two years or (rarely) fined for disobeying (‘being in contempt of’) a judge’s order. The Family Law Act 1996 widely extended protection to many kinds of vulnerable applicant and strengthened protection, requiring judges always to attach a power of arrest when a supporting statement alleged use or threats of violence.
The power of arrest ordered police to forthwith arrest and produce before a senior judge within 24 hours any respondent that an applicant reported had used or threatened violence. 90% of injunctions were obeyed, promoting essential calm for issues to be resolved keeping victims vulnerable: long-term accommodation, finance and property – crucially, children.
But feminist ideology holds only public law criminal courts are the proper forum for pursuing the war on gender-based violence. This ideology prevailed when an unwitting parliament passed the Domestic Violence (Crime and Victims) Act 2004, implemented in 2007. This abruptly ended the wraparound protection injunctions had provided, when it prevented courts from attaching powers of arrest and made breach an offence to be punished only in criminal proceedings. Now, on breach, our most vulnerable of victims lose the injunction’s protection, and their legal aid, theoretically to testify in criminal proceedings of unpredictable outcome and doubtful personal benefit– if police find enough evidence and if they can face the ordeal.
When the usual sentence on conviction for breach is a community service order served back home with the victim – whose purpose in applying for the injunction had been to safely and permanently separate from an abuser – the cruel nonsense of the current legislation cries out for reform.