Councils have “come late” to tackling domestic violence and “don’t always accord the voluntary sector the respect they should,” according to Anthony Wills, consultant on the Local Government Association’s Domestic Violence Project.
He spoke out this week at Refuge’s annual conference, which marked the domestic violence charity’s 35th birthday.
Speakers included representatives from government, the Crown Prosecution Service, police, voluntary sector and probation – but there were none from local authority children’s or adult services.
Refuge, originally called Chiswick Women’s Aid, opened the world’s first refuge for women escaping domestic violence in 1971. The charity narrowly escaped closure in 1994, due to lack of funds.
“We have come a long way towards tackling domestic violence but attitudes about women bringing abuse on themselves still linger,” family justice minister Harriet Harman told delegates.
One quarter of all reported violent crime is domestic violence, as are 30% of homicides, and the scale of domestic abuse is still being exposed, said Harman.
Issues raised at the conference include the following:
How local authorities approach domestic violence
Councils ought to be “at the heart of approaching domestic violence,” but often fail to work “coherently and cohesively,” said Anthony Wills, consultant on the LGA’s Domestic Violence Project .
He questioned the value of council domestic violence co-ordinators, who often feel “marginalised” and “bullied” and can be “more meeting arranger” than anything else, according to Wills. Domestic violence co-ordinators need to be “more respected, have more influence and be more effectively managed,” he added.
Domestic violence forums also came under fire.
“Too many are places where people meet up, have a chat, then go away. What happens as a result?” asked Wills.
Legislation is needed to oblige agencies to share information and save lives, said Brian Moore, the Association of Chief Police Officers lead on domestic violence, and deputy chief constable at Surrey Police. Health services are the “biggest single impediment” to information sharing, he claimed.
Dr Jo Nurse, consultant in public health at the Department of Health, referred to government guidance, (including the Laming report on Victoria Climbie and the Bichard report), and said agencies are obliged to share information when an individual is at risk of harm.
Moore said in his experience this is often not happening.
Director of the Cardiff Women’s Safety Unit Jan Pickles outlined the progress of multi-agency risk assessment conferences (Maracs), pioneered in south Wales and now government policy. The idea is to reduce harm for very high risk domestic abuse victims by agencies meeting to share information and take action.
Sixty three per cent of victims interviewed had not experienced further violence or abuse six months later, evaluation shows. Victims also have increased confidence in the police and criminal justice system. Pickles said the Marac process is extremely focused. In Cardiff last week, the Marac discussed 22 cases in three hours, she explained.
Holding perpetrators liable when abused women commit suicide
Nav Jagpal spoke movingly about his sister Gurjit Dhaliwal, who killed herself after enduring 25 years of violence from her husband. The Crown Prosecution Service tried to find Harcharan Dhaliwal responsible for his wife’s death. But they were unsuccessful and he walked free of manslaughter and grievous bodily harm charges.
Gurjit’s family believe the law offers no justice and are now working with Refuge to challenge the law.
Her brother described his “total and utter disappointment” when Harcharan Dhaliwal walked free.
“Violence and bullying that drives a woman to suicide should not be tolerated and abusers should be punished,” said Jagpal.
One third of women who commit suicide are domestic violence victims, said Ruth Aitken, Refuge policy adviser.
On the issue of inappropriate awarding of child contact where violence is feared, Harman said the secrecy of the family courts makes it “impossible” to know the extent of the problem. The government is planning to make family courts more open and accountable.
Homicide reviews for domestic violence victims
Findings of the government’s consultation on homicide reviews were unveiled for the first time by John Dunworth, head of domestic violence at the Home Office.
Statutory homicide reviews were introduced by the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 and mean local agencies will review the deaths of domestic violence victims. Like serious case reviews into the death or injury of a child, the idea is to identify lessons learnt.
The government consulted earlier this year on the format reviews should take and received over 100 responses, which are now with ministers, and will be used to write guidance for agencies.
Over 60 per cent of the responses believed serious case reviews are a “tried and tested” model, said Dunworth.
The consensus was that timing would vary case by case, depending on criminal proceedings or any inquiry. Legal advice will be needed on when to hold reviews. Within six months was considered about right by respondents.
Families of victims and perpetrators should not sit on the review panel but will be consulted and informed at every stage, the consultation found.
Respondents also gave varying views on whether chairs should be independent and if full reports or summaries should be published, and emphasised the need for quality and rigour.
Costs and a new burden of responsibility for agencies were also considered.