Women don’t need new laws to protect them, just for the existing laws to be properly implemented
The domestic abuse bill currently going through parliament is set to add new powers to deal with perpetrators of domestic abuse, but there are already a wide range of powers available to police that are simply not being used.
In fact, the level of protection has declined dramatically over the past two years, since changes to the pre-charge bail regime in April 2017. These introduced onerous requirements on the police when bail is granted and it seems that officers are avoiding these by releasing suspects without bail and using voluntary interviews instead of arrest.
This means that women who report rape, domestic abuse, harassment and stalking are left exposed during the police investigation, with no bail conditions in place. Previously, standard conditions were not to contact the complainant and not to go to her home address. We have received reports from frontline women’s services that suspects are contacting victims, in some cases harassing and intimidating them. Sometimes, especially where there is a history of coercive control, women are withdrawing their support for the prosecution, and statistically the number of cases dropped due to “victim does not support” has risen.
Apart from the primary purpose of protecting vulnerable people during a high-risk period, there is also a secondary impact of a lack of bail conditions. We hear reports that it is harder for women to access help from statutory bodies such as housing departments and legal aid because when there is no bail the assumption is that it is not a serious matter. Even family and friends may not believe the woman (and they are often related to, or friends with, the suspect) because it looks as if the police are not taking her report seriously.
The Centre for Women’s Justice has submitted a super-complaint to the police inspectorate about a failure to use a broad range of protective measures in cases involving violence against women. There are serious problems in the use of four different types of order: bail, arrest for breach of non-molestation orders, use of domestic violence protection orders and restraining orders. When all of these are taken cumulatively this amounts to a systemic failure to protect a particularly vulnerable group of people.
Where there is no bail, and also frequently when women report harassment, stalking and other abuse, police advise them to obtain a civil injunction – a non-molestation order – instead. If they do not qualify for free legal aid they will have to pay a lawyer or make the application on their own, and may have to face their abuser in court. In effect the police are outsourcing the effort and cost of protection on to victims themselves. We hear many reports from frontline services that when non-molestation orders are breached police fail to arrest – despite the fact that a breach is a serious criminal offence in its own right. Breaches are trivialised as officers often treat incidents in isolation rather than in the context of the prolonged abuse that led to the order being granted originally.
Domestic violence protection notices and orders have been available since 2014 but in 2018 were used in only 1% of domestic abuse-related crimes. Some forces, such as the Metropolitan police, do not use them at all and support workers in London have never come across them. Frontline women’s organisations also report that they have to chase the police repeatedly and attend court to ensure that restraining orders are sought at the end of a criminal case.
Specialist police units dealing with rape and domestic abuse are extremely stretched, coping with cuts at a time when the number of women coming forward to report abuse has risen significantly. Many specialist units are being disbanded and such cases dealt with in generalist units by officers without specialist training. Policing bodies such as the police inspectorate are well aware of the dramatic fall in use of bail in domestic abuse cases. Some other failings do not appear to be high on their agenda. Our super-complaint highlights the bigger picture in terms of the lack of protection given to women reporting abuse and seeks urgent action to address it. Increased funding is needed as well as improved guidance, training and supervision of officers on the ground. There are already plenty of laws available, but they need to be implemented.
• Nogah Ofer is a solicitor at Centre for Women’s Justice