Special report: Government ‘fails’ on domestic violence law reform


The government has proclaimed that its most far-reaching reform of
domestic violence law in 30 years will re-balance the criminal
justice system in favour of the victim, writes Natasha

But for charities working with women and children, the
legislative reforms do not go far enough. The Domestic Violence,
Crime and Victims Bill contains measures designed to strengthen the
rights of victims, but charities and organisations working with
children and vulnerable people believe other essential reforms have
been ignored or bypassed.

Many aspects of the bill, such as giving courts the power to
impose a restraining order where a defendant has been acquitted,
but the court believes the victim needs protection, making common
assault an arrestable offence and sentencing offenders for up to
five years in jail for breaking a non-molestation order, have been
greeted as “steps in the right direction”.

One proposal, that the government has decided not to go ahead
with, is the creation of a domestic violence register with the
names of offenders who are known to have been violent in the past.
The offenders would be required to notify police when they moved
and the contents of the register could have been shared with health
and social services staff.

Instead, a register of civil orders to allow the police to check
for outstanding orders against an alleged offender so they can take
immediate action to protect the victim, has been announced


Eleri Butler, policy and development officer for the domestic
violence charity, Women’s Aid, said: “There’s a
lot in the bill that we broadly welcome, but it’s quite
disappointing that it hasn’t gone any further. We support the
idea of a register of domestic violence offenders, but it
wouldn’t apply to very many offenders at the moment. It would
need to be part of a wider framework to challenge perpetrators and
hold them to account.
“We welcome the criminalisation of breaching the
non-molestation order, but the bill doesn’t criminalise the
breach of occupation orders, which removes the perpetrator of
violence from a property for a fixed period and which most women
wanted to see,” she said.

Women’s Aid also has issues with the lack of financial
support given to women with “insecure” immigration
status, who are unable to rely on public funds and so find it even
harder to escape an abusive relationship. For all women, barriers
around getting funding for legal services can also prevent
injunctions being sought, says the charity. They also have concerns
about the resources, or lack of them, that are being allocated to
implement the legislation.

New offence

But it’s not only women and men who are affected by the
bill. It has implications for children, although the extent to
which it offers them protection is being criticised and condemned
by organisations working with women and children. The bill will put
in place safeguards to make sure that parents co-accused of their
child’s murder will be unable to escape punishment by
remaining silent or blaming each other. A new offence of
‘familial homicide’ for causing or allowing the death
of a child or vulnerable adult will also be created.

NSPCC lawyer Barbara Esam said: “The NSPCC is outraged by
these cases where a child is killed or seriously injured, and
no-one is held accountable. The implementation of our
recommendations would make a real difference and would greatly
improve the prospects of justice being done. We have been calling
for action to address the injustices of these cases for a number of

But many charities are criticising the absence of any reference
to the effect on children of domestic violence in the bill and, in
particular, to contact time between parents found to be violent and
their children. Butler continued: “We also want it to be
recognised that domestic violence does affect children. We have
found in the research we have done that the family courts are not
taking into account the safety of the child.

“Along with the NSPCC, we are calling for the family
courts not to grant residence or unsupervised contact to
perpetrators of domestic violence unless the child’s safety
is paramount. Domestic violence is not mentioned in the
children’s green paper, and we are concerned that children
will be left out of the domestic violence legislation.”

‘No joined-up thinking’

Alan Coombe, the principal policy officer at Barnardo’s,
echoed Butler’s thoughts: “The children’s green
paper wasn’t very strong on domestic violence, although we
have had promises from the Department for Education and Skills that
they are going to look at domestic violence in the Children’s
Bill. This doesn’t demonstrate very joined-up government.

“I think it is a sea-change in attitude to the issue it
also needs to look at prevention, protection and support in
relation to children. There should be a smacking ban and we need to
look at the kind of support that we can offer to children. We need
to look at contact time with children as well where there’s
been violence in the family. Risk assessments should be carried

Coombe also wants to see a strong focus on combating violence in
the classroom to support children and break the cycle of domestic
abuse through education. He added: “I would have hoped that
there would be some kind of announcement about the core curriculum
to actually have an anti-violence message in schools looking at how
to resolve conflicts.”

Main points of the bill:

– Breaching a non-molestation order is an arrestable offence
which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison.

– Extending the use of restraining orders where the defendant
has been acquitted, but the court believes an order is necessary to
protect the victim.

– Parents co-accused of their child’s murder will be
unable to escape punishment  by remaining silent or blaming each

– A new offence of familial homicide for causing or allowing the
death of a child or vulnerable adult.

– Setting up an independent commissioner for victims.

– Cohabiting same-sex couples have the same rights as
heterosexual couples.

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