New draft guidelines proposing that domestic violence perpetrators could be given courses of rehabilitation rather than custodial sentences if they show remorse unsurprisingly made headline news last week.
While some campaigners have expressed horror at the proposal others have less hardline views arguing that such an approach would have to be implemented carefully.
The proposal is put forward in draft guidelines from the Sentencing Guidelines Council to assist sentencers in domestic violence cases. It states that in some cases where a serious level of violence is involved – and therefore custody is being considered – it may be appropriate to impose a non-custodial sentence that will allow the offender to be rehabilitated.
The examples of when this might be the correct procedure include when the preservation of the relationship is an important consideration or the offender shows genuine remorse and wishes to address his or her behaviour.
“Giving men a licenece to batter women”
Sandra Horley, chief executive of domestic violence charity Refuge, is outraged by this part of the draft guidelines. “It would be a travesty if the Sentencing Guidelines Council proposals on domestic violence come into effect. In short they give men a licence to batter women as long as they are able to put on a remorseful act in front of a judge.”
A spokesperson at domestic violence charity Women’s Aid, says that the organisation is not totally opposed to the measure but it would have to be monitored closely.
“If a rehabilitation course is recommended in place of a custodial sentence for a perpetrator of domestic violence, it is crucial that every safety consideration is taken by the courts to ensure that his partner is not placed at further risk,” she says.
The draft guidelines outline that sentencers must be aware of some perpetrators’ ability to have ‘two personae’ when making judgements about whether to spare them custody.
“A man who appears respectable and charming in court may be completely different when at home with his partner,” says the Women’s Aid spokesperson.
The guidance adds that offenders’ good character in relation to conduct outside the home should generally not be of ‘no more than minor relevance’ where there is a proven pattern of domestic violence.
Horley says that judges need to be trained to prevent them from being fooled by false impressions.
“Unless judges are adequately trained in risk assessment, a manipulative abuser may be able to convince a judge of his remorse, therefore putting women and children at further risk.”
The impact of domestic violence on children features in certain sections of the draft guidelines but Pam Hibbert, principal policy officer at children’s charity Barnardo’s, says that some of these could be improved
The aggravating and mitigating factors section of the guidance states that children are likely to be adversely affected by directly witnessing domestic violence or being aware of it taking place while they are elsewhere in the home. While Hibbert welcomes this she says that it needs to be strengthened as children can be influenced by domestic violence even if they do not see it or are not in the house when it is occurring.
“We would like to see that [the impact on children taken into account] as a general requirement,” she says.
The draft guidelines also state that either the victim or the offender may ask the court to take the interests of any children involved into consideration and to impose a less severe sentence but Hibbert says that children themselves should be able to put their views forward.
“The offender or the victim can make statements but surely the court should take into account what children themselves say. They [the offender or the victim] may not be representing the best interests of the child as the child sees it,” she says.
Hibbert adds that children could make their views known through a Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service guardian or an independent advocate in order to make the experience less daunting. She says that the version of children’s views presented by an offender could be warped as the child could be scared of them and therefore tell them what they want to hear or in the case of the victim they could feel under pressure to side with them.
The consultation period for the draft guidelines closes on 12 June. With such strong feelings being expressed by some campaigners there is unlikely to be a lack of responses.
Overarching Principles: Domestic Violence from: www.sentencing-guidelines.gov.uk