|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 179 June 2014
Domestic violence: a new law, but more cut-backs
The Con-Dem coalition government claims new legislation will give stronger protection to those facing domestic violence. But against the backdrop of ongoing, severe cuts to local services and legal aid, just how much will really change? ELEANOR DONNE reports.
Women’s Aid, the UK’s leading domestic violence charity and provider of refuges and support services, declared at the end of last year that, if cuts continued, "an entire network of domestic violence providers in England is likely to collapse". Its survey found that 30% of service providers that rely on local authority funding had their budgets cut last year, and almost one in five refuges were waiting to hear if they would receive any funds at all, putting staff and residents in an incredibly stressful position. Government ‘supporting people’ grants to local authorities have been cut by 10%. Women’s Aid and Refuge, the other main provider of refuges and safe houses, increasingly has to compete with other services for vulnerable people.
Nationally, refuges have lost 112 specialist posts. ‘Soft targets’, such as crèche staff and benefits advisers at refuges, have been cut. Women and children fleeing violence are regularly turned away from refuges that are full up, and end up returning to an unsafe home or placed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation by their council’s homelessness department. David Cameron proudly announced that the government had ring-fenced nearly £40 million of stable funding up to 2015 for specialist local domestic and sexual violence support services, rape crisis centres, the national domestic violence helpline and the stalking helpline. This, however, is less than half of the MPs’ annual expenses bill. At least we know where their priorities lie.
The Con-Dem coalition government has recently introduced legislation that it claims will increase protection for victims of domestic violence, also known as ‘intimate partner violence’. The Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme gives people the right to apply to the police for information about their partner’s history of domestic violence. It also allows the police to disclose information without being asked, if they consider it necessary to protect someone. This is also called ‘Clare’s Law’, after Clare Wood, who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend. The police have new powers to issue domestic violence protection notices and to apply to the magistrates’ court for domestic violence protection orders. From March 2013, the Home Office extended the definition of domestic abuse to include ‘coercive control’, and to apply to 16- and 17-year-olds for the first time.
Cutting off legal aid
But how effective will these legal changes be – or even the existing laws – if you cannot afford legal advice or a solicitor to fight your corner in court? The government abolished legal aid for family law cases a year ago. Although it claimed to have retained it where domestic violence is an issue, the Domestic Violence Intervention Project estimates that around half of women experiencing partner abuse no longer qualify for legal aid. The definition of domestic violence in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2013 is a lot narrower than that used by the police and most support services – it does not include psychological abuse, for example. In order to get financial assistance you need documentary proof of the abuse from police, courts, medical services, etc. When a GP may typically charge £75 for a letter, this will be out of reach for many.
The act also fails to take account of the fact that the majority of women who experience abuse by their partner do not report this to official sources, so will not have third-party evidence. The campaign group, Rights of Women, states correctly: "The reforms demonstrate a total lack of awareness and understanding of the dynamics and nature of domestic violence and the experiences of women affected by it".
CAFCASS, the family court service, found that in 42% of cases heard in the family courts, neither party was represented by a lawyer, compared with 18% before the cuts. In some cases, victims of domestic abuse have ended up being cross-examined in court by their abuser. These cuts in legal aid have already led to a decline in the numbers of solicitors and law firms who will take on domestic violence cases, reducing access to justice still further.
The government has also cut the number of specialist domestic violence courts from 143 to 135. These courts were first established in 2005. They provide independent advisers for victims, dedicated prosecutors, specialist magistrates and police officers, and separate areas to make sure victims do not encounter their attackers. Domestic violence conviction rates in the five years to 2011 stood at just 6.5% of incidents reported to police, according to Women’s Aid. However, of the small minority that did get to court, the rates of conviction had actually been increasing. The loss or merger of these courts represents a step back, and we could see a decline in successful court cases.
The Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme (Clare’s Law) was introduced for England and Wales in March 2014 after a one-year pilot scheme. Clare Wood’s ex-partner had been in prison for three years for harassment of a previous girlfriend, and six months for breaching a restraining order on another ex-girlfriend. Clare was not aware of this and, had she known, she may have taken the step earlier to end her relationship. However, in Clare’s case, regardless of what her ex-partner had done to other women, had the police acted on reports that she herself made to them in the months before she was killed, she might still be alive.
Clare Wood contacted Greater Manchester Police several times to report harassment, threats to kill her and attempted rape but, in the words of the police watchdog, was badly let down by ‘individual and systemic failures’. Commenting on the pilot for the scheme which ran for a year in Salford, Clare’s home town, the deputy superintendent of Greater Manchester Police, Phil Owen, pointed out that "over two-thirds of domestic homicides result immediately following separation, so if we give information to a woman and she then leaves, we ultimately put her at risk".
Of course, it is better for a woman to know, but this information is academic without the resources to escape. In addition, before disclosing anything the police have to decide if it would be appropriate and proportionate. This will often involve consulting other agencies, such as probation, social services and the prison service. Given the cuts, privatisation and horrendous staff shortages that these services are facing, a backlog of requests could stretch to months. Clare’s Law will only be of limited help and, in fact, could give potential victims a false sense of security because most abusers are not known to the police or any other agencies.
Protection notices and orders
From March 2014, the police have new powers to issue domestic violence protection notices (DVPNs) and to apply to the magistrates’ court for an order preventing an alleged perpetrator of abuse from contacting their alleged victim. This can include banning them from the home even if they are a tenant or owner. The stated aim of the DVPNs and orders is to protect someone from the risk of repeat abuse where there is not enough evidence to arrest and charge the perpetrator with a criminal offence. The police need only show that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the victim continues to be at risk.
The effect of the DVPN is immediate, whereas sometimes existing civil measures, such as an injunction, can take a couple of days to put in place. This has put off many abuse victims from calling the police as it leaves the perpetrator free to return to the home after a few hours, thus leaving the abused open to further revenge attacks. Once the police have issued the DVPN, they have 48 hours to apply to a magistrates’ court for a domestic violence protection order (DVPO). If the court rules that the victim requires continued protection, they may issue a DVPO, which lasts for up to 28 days.
These new measures have been broadly welcomed by organisations which support abuse victims, as allowing them a breathing space to consider their next step in relative safety. Socialists are wary of measures giving the police additional powers, and are rightly critical of anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs), which can be used to criminalise young people in particular for relatively minor offences, and even to be used against political activists. Unlike ASBOs, however, breaching a DVPO is not a criminal offence. Nonetheless, any concern about the potential for misuse of such police powers is outweighed by the risk of serious harm or even death to many thousands of abuse victims left unprotected. But will an inadequately trained and not democratically accountable police force use these new tools effectively?
One of the biggest barriers which women face is not necessarily the law itself but failure by many police, courts and even family lawyers to use the legal powers they already have due to ignorance, prejudice and a lack of resources. Police officers often have preconceived ideas about how a ‘victim’ should look and act, and do not get thorough and regular training. Too often they treat domestic violence differently from other violent crimes, failing to carry out basic police work, such as photographing the victim’s injuries and gathering evidence.
On average, women do not approach the police until they have suffered around 35 incidents of abuse. The difficulties they face, being in the same household as their attacker and the psychological effects of years of controlling behaviour, underpinned with actual and threatened violence, are not always acknowledged. This can lead to an attitude from police officers that the woman will eventually withdraw her statement, so ‘why bother’?
The effectiveness of legal measures is further undermined by the scarcity of support services for abuse survivors, and of perpetrator programmes aimed at getting abusers to change their behaviour. The DVPOs were originally meant to include an automatic referral to a perpetrator programme, as it does with similar models in other European countries. However, this was taken out because there is a chronic shortage of such programmes.
The Justice Unions’ Group (which includes the PCS civil servants union, the National Association of Probation Officers, and the Prison Officers Association) and the all-party group of MPs on stalking and harassment have sponsored a private member’s bill: the Domestic Violence Bill. If passed, this would make domestic abuse a specific offence with a maximum sentence of up to 14 years in prison. The proposed definition of domestic abuse is "intentionally, wilfully or recklessly causing, or attempting to cause, physical injury or psychological harm to a person".
The most commonly quoted statistic related to domestic abuse is that one in four women and one in six men experience domestic violence at some time in their lives. While these figures still show that women are most affected, they are close enough to be used to undermine an analysis of domestic violence as a gendered crime. Some organisations claiming to represent men’s, and especially fathers’, rights use them to argue that domestic violence services are unfairly weighted towards women, and even try to use equalities legislation to challenge local authorities. Of course, male victims of abuse should have access to proper support services, but they should be in addition to, not instead of, services for women.
However, those statistics only give a partial picture. Women are much more likely to have sustained severe injuries, choking, strangling and repeated violence. Of the victims who have experienced four or more incidents of violence, 89% are women. Rape and sexual assault are overwhelmingly gender-based crimes and more than half of rapes are carried out by a partner or ex-partner. An average of two women per week are killed by their partners or ex-partners, whereas it is extremely rare for women to kill their partners.
Domestic abuse services are reporting an increase in crisis cases. Could this mean that there is a ‘recession effect’ on the levels of violence in the home? Clearly, financial pressures, worry over how to pay the rent or mortgage, or loss of status as the ‘breadwinner’ can lead to tensions within relationships and families. All of these factors have increased since the economic crisis and are often given by male abusers as reasons for abusive behaviour. But it would be wrong to make a crude link between economic factors and abuse. Domestic/intimate partner violence is not caused by poverty, bad housing, unemployment or alcohol consumption, and does not only happen in working-class homes. In that sense it is not a class issue.
Nonetheless, it is rooted in class society in which, for thousands of years, the state, church and economic systems have promoted and enforced male authority in the family. Men were allowed, even expected, to hit their wives to ‘keep their house in order’ until the turn of the 20th century. They had ‘conjugal rights’ which meant their wives could not say no to sex, right up until 1991 in Britain – the year the law lords made a final ruling on the issue of marital rape. The capitalist economic system reinforces women’s lower status in the workplace and exploits their role as unpaid carers in the family to keep the social wage low. If there has been a rise in approaches to refuge services, this could also be because more women are facing unemployment, low wages and benefit cuts, and have been unable to make their own arrangements to escape a violent relationship.
Demand for increased services
Currently, there is no such crime as domestic violence. A perpetrator can be prosecuted for various offences, such as grievous bodily harm, common assault and harassment, sexual assault or rape. However, the police and Crown Prosecution Service often focus on a single incident and do not or cannot take into account long-term repetitive abusive behaviour, which tends to be the pattern of domestic violence.
The existing number of refuges and safe houses for those fleeing violence – literally, a lifeline for some – is woefully inadequate. We need a network of properly funded refuges including provision for black and minority ethnic women. Services for male victims of abuse should be provided in addition to, not in competition with, services for women. No-one should have to ‘choose’ between staying in a violent relationship and escaping into poverty, homelessness and social isolation.
Successive Labour and Tory/Lib Dem governments tell us that the money is not there to provide these services. This is not true. There are huge resources in society, the wealth which has been created by us, but which is in the hands of rich shareholders. This should be taken into public ownership. The billions of pounds which are currently languishing in offshore accounts could be used to build women’s refuges, affordable social housing and provide desperately needed, good quality, affordable childcare facilities. These are an essential part of allowing women to build a new life for themselves and their children after leaving a violent partner. That goes along with the demand for a living wage of £10 per hour. The government is using austerity propaganda to punish people already living in poverty.
We demand the abolition of the bedroom tax and benefit cap, and for housing benefit/local housing allowance rates to reflect the current level of rents. There should be rent controls in the private rented sector. Labour councils have refused to make a stand against Con-Dem government cuts, at best saying that they will introduce them more slowly.
This is why Socialist Party members contested the local elections as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition in the biggest left-of-labour electoral challenge for 60 years, pledging, if elected, to refuse to pass on government cut-backs. We also demand the resources needed to fund women’s refuges, support services and perpetrator programmes. The campaign is not only against cuts but, more fundamentally, for a political voice for working-class people. With such a voice we can fight for a genuine socialist alternative to the current capitalist system which exploits women as cheap labour at work and unpaid domestic workers/carers in the home.