Out of the shadows

Two women are killed by their current or former partner every
week in England and Wales. One in four women and one in six men
experience domestic violence during their lifetime. These figures
are horrifying, but sadly, well documented and have inspired the
government to implement the biggest overhaul of domestic violence
law for 30 years. Last month, it published the Domestic Violence,
Crime and Victims Bill, which contains a radical package of
proposals (news, page 7, 4 December 2003). It has already advanced
to the House of Lords and is expected to become law later this

Launching the bill, home secretary David Blunkett said it puts
“victims and witnesses at the very heart of the system” by making
sure they get “the help, support and protection” they need. He
added that the police and the courts should have the necessary
powers to “convict and punish these offenders”.

The main proposals in the bill are to make it a criminal offence to
breach a non-molestation order; extend domestic violence law to
include same-sex couples; create a new offence of familial
homicide; and have two-stage court trials for high volume crimes,
such as internet child pornography.

Non-molestation orders
Family courts award non-molestation orders. As its name suggests,
this type of order is requested by an individual who wishes to stop
someone harassing, abusing or molesting them. The bill proposes the
Family Law Act 1996 be amended so it becomes an offence to breach a
non-molestation order, with an accompanying punishment of up to
five years in prison, a fine or both.

Ruth Aitken, a policy officer at domestic violence charity Refuge,
supports the measure. As some non-molestation orders do not contain
the power of arrest if they are breached, women believe they are
“not worth the paper they are written on”, she says. “Currently, it
is hard to prove if the orders are breached and if they are, what
happens to the perpetrator? There are no consequences.”

But will women, whose partner or former partner may be the father
of their children, report a breach if he could be imprisoned?
Aitken believes this possibility will not deter women, particularly
if the man is violent. And the move will bring non-molestation
orders in line with the law around contact orders, which are also
punishable with a prison sentence if breached.

But director of children’s charity Kidscape, Michele Elliott,
disagrees: “The woman may worry that if she sends him away to
prison then he’ll be angry with her and he’ll get her when he comes

Same-sex relationships
Civil law on domestic violence is strengthened under the bill to
apply to co-habiting lesbian and gay couples. It suggests that the
Family Law Act 1996 be rewritten to afford those in same-sex
relationships the same protection from domestic violence as
heterosexual couples.

The implications are far-reaching. With an estimated six million
lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people living in the UK,
thousands of them have experienced or are experiencing domestic

Broken Rainbow is a forum that combats domestic violence among
lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people. Caroline Jones,
co-chairperson of the forum, welcomes any change in the law that
recognises domestic violence is not just about heterosexual
couples. “Our community has been forgotten and we have been
excluded from services.”

She knows of cases where lesbians and gay men have gone to agencies
for help about domestic violence only to be turned away: “The
incident has been stereotyped as a catfight between women or a
brawl between men.”

The impact of changing the law, says Jones, is that more people
experiencing domestic violence will be willing to come forward and
seek help if they know they will be taken seriously. She adds that
victims will also be more likely to press charges against their
same sex partner too, something the existing definition of domestic
violence bars them from doing.

Familial homicide
The bill creates an offence of familial homicide for causing or
allowing the death of a child or vulnerable adult. A person would
be guilty of the offence if the death was as a result of the
actions of a member of the same household or someone they had
frequent contact with. The proposal closes the legal loophole that
allows parents or carers co-accused of their child or relative’s
murder to escape punishment by blaming each other or remaining

Gary FitzGerald, chief executive of Action on Elder Abuse (AEA),
says the move is the result of its lobbying of government. AEA
began campaigning after 78-year old Margaret Panting died at the
hands of her family in Sheffield. No one could be prosecuted
because the police could not prove who inflicted Panting’s 60
injuries. FitzGerald says: “The new offence sends the message that
we are taking the death of older people in these circumstances as
seriously as a child’s death.”

The measure will impact on the work of practitioners as they will
need to establish who has the duty of care to a vulnerable adult.
The Crown Prosecution Service will also have to prosecute those
involved in such deaths.

However, some professionals are concerned that the offence will
apply to all those in a household aged 16 and above. Ruth Aitken at
Refuge says it could be difficult to determine what constitutes
reasonable steps to protect a victim if the defendant has also
experienced domestic violence. Refuges do not take in 16-year old
boys with their mothers and some women may stay at home rather than
leave their son behind. If the father subsequently killed a younger
sibling or the mother in a domestic violence incident, for example,
she is worried that any 16 year old in the home would be implicated
under this offence.

Two-stage court trials
The bill covers more than domestic violence and family homicide. It
also brings in the Law Commission recommendation of two-stage court
trials to ensure people are prosecuted for multiple offences. It
would apply to people who commit high volume crimes – such as
internet child pornography or fraud – where, under current law,
they can only be tried for a small number of their crimes. For
example, in one case a man downloaded from the internet about 2,000
sexually explicit images involving children under the age of 16. He
was only charged with 14 offences of “making” the images and one
offence of possession. Under a two-stage court trial, in cases such
as this, a jury would hear some offences, with a judge considering
the other offences before giving a verdict based on the two
separate stages.

Ray Wyre, an independent consultant on child pornography and
paedophilia, says if a person is liable for each child pornography
image they possess it will act as a deterrent. “In the future
people will know that for every single image they have looked at
they will be prosecuted.”

However, he warns there could be a problem if those charged with
possessing child pornography protest their innocence. “If a lot
more people plead not guilty then the defence will really have to
fight the case.”

While Michele Elliott at Kidscape supports the introduction of
two-stage court trials, she says more resources must go into police
work and social services to catch and apprehend those involved in
child pornography production.

Also in the Bill

  • Common assault to be an arrestable offence. 
  • Police to be given more powers to deal with domestic
  • An independent commissioner for victims to be
  • Extension to the use of restraining orders. 
  • All criminal justice agencies to be provided with a binding
    code of practice to ensure victims receive the support and
    information they need.

Domestic violence – the facts

  • Domestic violence accounts for almost a quarter of all violent
  • In 90 per cent of domestic violence incidents children are in
    the same or next door room. 
  • In more than half of known domestic violence incidents children
    were also directly abused. 
  • A woman will be assaulted by her current or former partner an
    average of 35 times before reporting it to the police. 
  • A woman may go to up to 10 different agencies before receiving

“He looked calm and satisfied with himself” 

It was after the last time Mel Rawding’s ex-husband Ronnie
attacked her in May 2002 that she knew she finally had to end their
relationship. Ronnie had threatened to kill her “so there would be
nothing left to find”. Mel tried to leave their Plymouth home, near
the naval base where Ronnie served, with her three children. The
last thing she recalls is bending down to pick up her mobile phone
after he threw it. “Then I remember hearing my eight-year-old
daughter Holly screaming that he had broken my nose.”As Mel lay on
the floor bleeding her ex-husband rang the police saying she had
hit him. Mel was in an ambulance when the police took Ronnie away:
“He looked calm and satisfied with himself.” 

The couple had married in November 1997 and Ronnie was initially
“charming”. The emotional abuse started when he set Mel a two-hour
shopping time limit. The first time he hit her he gave her a dead
arm and dismissed it as a joke when she protested.  

The violence soon became more regular and was not confined to
just Mel. Ronnie would also smack and hit her three young children,
two of whom he had fathered, and kick her dog. Mel says she was too
frightened to step in as Ronnie insisted he should be able to
discipline the children. “My oldest, Holly, was never allowed to
cry. She began to survive like I did by playing by his rules.” 
Over Christmas 2001 Mel rang the naval base’s family welfare
service to talk about her husband’s behaviour. It was the first
time someone told her she was experiencing domestic violence: “I’d
left my first husband for Ronnie. I felt this was my punishment,”
she says. 

Mel started divorce proceedings in May 2002 and attempted
unsuccessfully to get a non-molestation order. In February 2003 the
Crown Prosecution Service took Ronnie to court for actual bodily
harm but that was reduced to common assault when he claimed
self-defence. He received a conditional discharge and Mel was
awarded £50. She says the worst thing about living through
domestic violence is its after-effects on her and her children. Mel
had counselling with Refuge and now wants to train as a domestic
violence worker. Part of Mel’s new found freedom has been dyeing
her hair pink: “I can do what I want now.”    

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