The North Yorkshire PFCC’s Domestic Abuse Scrutiny Panel

This is one of five panels in a project begun in 2018 in 5 PFCC areas in the north and north-east of England, to monitor how police deal with the issue. Intended to last 4 years it was set up by Dame Vera Baird QC, then Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria. Dame Vera has long advocated tackling domestic abuse through the criminal justice system and has advised Women’s Aid, drafting legislation for them to put to government. She was Labour MP for Redcar from 2001-2010 and Solicitor General from 2007-2010. Before becoming an MP she was a criminal defence barrister, successfully reducing murder charges to manslaughter for abused women who had killed their partners. The project she began ended after a year, when in June 2019 she replaced Baroness Newlove as Victims’ Commissioner. A separate post of Domestic Abuse Commissioner for England and Wales has been created by the new criminal bill.

Despite the project’s premature end, our North Yorkshire panel voted to continue giving what we hope is useful local feedback to the complex, troubling family situations the state has currently decreed our criminal justice system deal with. 

Our induction contained a briefing from a CPS solicitor who stressed the two-stage test to be satisfied before proceedings may be brought. First, is there enough evidence for ‘a realistic chance of conviction?’ Second, is it in the public interest to prosecute? 

Here are three examples (slightly altered to avoid identification) of police files the panel examined. In all three, procedures were correctly followed. Yet all three, I can’t help but think, could have been dealt with more effectively through civil procedure:

  1. A woman complains her violent partner, living separately, hit her in an argument, causing her to step on their 3-month old baby. Soon after, she obtains a non-molestation order, made for the rather odd term of 3 years. The order is breached several times with no apparent attempt to prosecute. Finally a charge of breach is brought alongside charges of s 37 assault and criminal damage. However, all charges are dropped because of conflict in the prosecuting evidence. By now the 3-month old is 3 years old and there is another child. The woman reports she is wetting the bed with anxiety and the father is threatening to kill her – and kill himself. The file states the woman withdraws from further engagement with the police, the compiler reflecting she is failing to think of her children. (Some may marvel she engaged so long). It is also recorded that while the non-molestation order was in force, she spent 3 months in a women’s refuge. Refuge, like its sister charity Women’s Aid, does not divulge information about its clients, but clearly after years of well-intended intervention this unhappy family’s predicament was not resolved when the file was closed.

    I should add that solicitors who do not advise appropriately when a client’s injunction is breached, face a clear complaints procedure, from their firm’s practice manager to the Law Society itself – and rightly so.
  2. A young woman complains her ex-partner harasses her mercilessly, refusing to accept the relationship has ended. Several visits by the police to both parties result in her saying she is taking him back, having lost faith anything can be done to stop him. The file is closed with the customary ‘No further action’ but one fears for the health of this relationship and any future children.

    Perhaps a family lawyer would do no better. Yet, had a referral been made after the initial police visit had been ignored by the harassing ‘ex’, a polite but firm solicitor’s letter (saying if he did not desist, the client would be advised to apply for an injunction) could have ended the matter. Cost under the Legal Advice and Assistance scheme (cavalierly abolished by LASPO in 2013) about £80. Surely less of a drain on public finances than so much wasted police time trailing back and forth. No wonder only 6% of burglaries are solved!
  3. A woman reports her partner has been continually violent and abusive and she has asked him to leave. He says if he does, he will take the children – a scenario familiar to family lawyers. I would have advised an initial ex parte application for a non-molestation order to protect herself and the children, with a concurrent application for a Children Act prohibited steps order to give the police power to return any child he removed. Pre-DVCVA, it is almost certain a power of arrest would have been attached to the ‘violence/threats of violence’ clauses in the order, reassuring the client she would be safe from retaliation from the moment the order was served. The police file in this case covered five years, by which time the woman reports her partner is threatening to slit her throat. A police visit takes place when it is noted the children are in bed asleep, the woman confirms her partner has calmed down and she does not believe he will be violent that night. Their safeguarding forms completed (we spend a lot of time checking safeguarding forms), and hearing nothing further, the police close the file. Mentally crossing my fingers for her future safety, I reflect on the trauma suffered by children growing up in such households, their likely problems in school and the effect on their adult relationships.

Two points arise from this third file:

  1. ‘Safeguarding’ in the criminal justice system refers to short-term physical safety only, as the police officer at the session confirmed.
  2.  I asked the officer if a family law non-molestation order had been considered. The reply was, only the woman herself could apply. I asked if a referral to a family solicitor could have been made but was told the case was ‘too serious’ for that. We can infer from this response another reason – in addition to the binary test outlined by the CPS solicitor- why so few breaches of non-molestation orders are prosecuted.  The police don’t understand them so don’t take them seriously, as the Supercomplaint by the Centre for Women’s Justice, 19 March 2019, asserts.

If the police don’t take non-molestation orders seriously now, it is surely reasonable to ask if they ever will. And if any apologist for the DVCVA – which neither deters perpetrators nor protects victims –  repeats the mantra that it’s a just matter of ‘more police training and more resources’ for all to be well, I can only say, ‘After 16 years? Please!’