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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 December, 2003, 16:34 GMT
Victims of crime: Ask the expert

You asked Debora Singer from Victim Support about the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill.

  • Transcript

    Victims of domestic violence are to get greater protection under new legislation published on Tuesday.

    The Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill will include "stay away" orders that will come into force whether somebody is found guilty or acquitted of violent crimes.

    It will also establish a victims' commissioner to speak up for the interests of victims.

    The government says the Bill is a key part of its efforts to put victims at the heart of the criminal justice system.

    What will be the effect of these new measures? What sort of research was done before the new Bill was written? How will this legislation affect me?

    You put your questions to Debora Singer from the charity Victim Support in a live interactive forum on Tuesday 2nd December.


    Susanna Reid:

    Hello and welcome to this interactive forum. I'm Susanna Reid. Tougher legislation is being introduced to give police and the courts in England and Wales powers to stop the perpetrators of domestic violence from contacting their victims. The "stay away" orders, as they are known, will come into force whether somebody is found guilty or acquitted of violent crimes.

    Joining me to answer your many questions on the Domestic Violence Crime and Victims Bill is Debora Singer, Policy Manager for the charity Victim Support. Debora has been working closely with the Government on the consultation process for this Bill. Thanks very much indeed for joining us.

    Now many people have been asking questions about the fact that this seems to change the emphasis of the law on domestic violence. So let's plunge in with some of the questions. David Patrick in the UK says: Innocent until proven guilty is a vital, non-negotiable part of British law. How then can a law that punishes someone - even if they are found not guilty of a criminal offence - be at all fair and just? The ease with which men and women could abuse this law is frightening.

    David referring precisely to that point, that if someone is acquitted of the crime of domestic violence, a "stay away" order could still apply. Can you just clarify what the situation is?

    Debora Singer:

    I will clarify it but it is really complex and I think it's based on the fact that at the moment the civil system and the criminal justice system are two separate processes and so if you're a victim of domestic violence, you've actually got two options. One is to go down the civil line and try and get a non-molestation order under the Family Law Act or try and get a restraining order under the Protection from Harassment Act and another is for the police and the prosecution service to actually take the case through the criminal courts. ,p. Once that's happened - once you've gone through the criminal courts - whether or not there's an acquittal or a conviction, nothing is actually then being done to make sure that the victim is safe. So at the end of that day the victim could go home and the perpetrator - unless they've been kept in custody - there's nothing to stop them coming back and doing it again or threatening to do it again.

    The other thing we know is that in burden of proof in the civil courts and in the criminal justice courts is different. So you might, in a criminal court, not have enough evidence to say that beyond reasonable doubt this person committed this assault. But you might feel you've got enough evidence to say that on the balance of probabilities, this victim is at risk and needs some protection from this perpetrator. And the courts would then be allowed, on the basis of that evidence that has been put before them, to actually say, ok, you're acquitted of this crime but we're worried about this victim and what we're going to say to you is that you mustn't go near her, you mustn't go near her house, maybe mustn't go near the children's school and if you do then she has the right to call the police and we will then actually come and say you've breached your restraining order and we will take you to court about that.

    Susanna Reid:

    A couple of people are questioning precisely that principle because they want to know if you have been found not guilty of an offence, how can you continue to be punished for it. Let me put a couple of questions to you.

    Jon Baldwin, UK says: Wouldn't you agree that whatever the reasons behind it, the awarding "punishments" for acquitted suspects is perverse and against the general scheme of justice to which we are accustomed in this country?

    Ian Warncken, UK says: I am concerned about the implications of ignoring court rulings. I think I am not alone in worrying this may act as a dangerous precedent in other areas where the government may think that the courts are getting it wrong.

    If someone has been found not guilty because it couldn't be proved beyond reasonable doubt, then they should be classed as innocent. So how come they should continue to be punished?

    Debora Singer:

    But what this idea is, is to fill a gap because at the moment what happens is you can have your victim, they go through the criminal courts, the person is found not guilty, they continue to harass the victim. The victim then has to go to a different court - a civil court - give all the information again that they've already given to the criminal court and the court can then say - on the balance of probabilities we have got concerns for this victim and we're going to tell this person that they mustn't come near the victim.

    But the gap in time and the fact that this poor victim has to go to two different courts and give the same information - that's the gap that this idea would close. The restraining order is not a punishment for a crime that they've been found innocent of - the restraining order is a civil order to basically protect the victim. That's what the Protection from Harassment Act is about - protecting people. If you breach a restraining order, then you actually get taken back to court and it's looked at whether there's evidence to show you did breach that restraining order. So you would need to then have evidence that you had threatened that victim and if that was found, then you would be found guilty of breaching a restraining order. You wouldn't be suddenly found guilty of the original offence.

    Susanna Reid:

    Do you find in your experience at Victim Support that there are many people who continue to suffer domestic violence even if the person has been taken to court and acquitted of the actual crime?

    Debora Singer:

    Yes we do. What we've found is there's a whole long period during which people don't even go through the court process, they suffer in silence. And when they do go through either the civil or the criminal courts, it's actually very difficult to make those orders stick. There is a tendency to breach these orders and for people to not realise how serious they are.

    Susanna Reid:

    We've had a number of questions from men who are concerned that the emphasis currently or today's announcement has been very much on the suffering of women as victims. Let me put some of these, sometimes disturbing, questions to you. Al, Wales says: Why do people assume that it is the man that is the perpetrator and never the victim? I suffered from a violent and drunken wife for years and put up with it for the sake of the children. She was cunning, she called the police on one occasion and accused me of violence - they believed her - they always do.

    Craig, UK says: Isn't this law supposed to protect men and woman? The Solicitor General, Harriet Harman's, comments imply that the victim is always a woman. What chance do men have?

    In your extensive experience, what proportion of the domestic violence victims are men rather than women?

    Debora Singer:

    I think it's difficult to talk in proportions. Certainly Victim Support service is for men and women who are victims of domestic violence. What we do know is that violence against women tends to be more intense, tends to be more severe and more on-going. We also know that in some circumstances, men might have more options than women in terms of getting out of the relationship. But that isn't always the case and we believe violence against people needs to be taken seriously, whether you're a man or a woman.

    Your viewers won't have had a chance I imagine to actually read the legislation because it's only just got published but we rushed off and got a copy this morning and it's completely gender-neutral. It doesn't talk about men and women at all. It talks about victims and offenders and it talks about heterosexual and homosexual relationships.

    Susanna Reid:

    But although this legislation may be gender-neutral, do you find that, for instance, media coverage of domestic violence gives enough acknowledgement to the fact that men are also victims? And what about the way the police treat men who claim that they're victims of domestic violence? Is there enough acknowledgement there? Do men feel that they can't complain about the situation because they're afraid of not being believed?

    Debora Singer:

    I think that's the situation to some extent and in a way that's the situation that women were in 10 years ago when the police just didn't deal with domestic violence incidents at all. Certainly there is a need to raise awareness that actually this can affect men and women. But I think we do need to be careful with the facts because we know the murder statistics are horrendous - 30 men are killed by partners or ex-partners each year and 120 women - that's two women a week are being killed by their partners or ex-partners and that's very serious. And what we do know is the way that domestic violence works is that it escalates. So it starts as something small and can be perpetuated up to this dreadful level of murder.

    Susanna Reid:

    Continuing this point - S J Bamford, UK says: Men who are victims of domestic violence don't seem to be able to access the same amount of help or support groups as the wide range of women's support groups that there seem to be in this situation.

    Carter, UK says: How many refuges are there for men and their children if they are in such a situation?

    We hear a lot about battered women refuges and the support given for children but how much money is given to groups offering support to male victims of domestic violence?

    Debora Singer:

    I think that male and female victims of domestic violence don't necessarily have exactly the same needs as each other. And so yes there aren't men's refuges for domestic violence in the way there are women's refuges for domestic violence. But I'm not sure that that's always the need that people would have. I think because of men's financial situation, they're actually more likely to be a situation where they can get themselves accommodation with or without their children and so the sorts of needs they have can be different.

    I do think we need to look at support services for all victims of domestic violence, to recognise the different needs for men and women and actually there does need to be more funding to be put into those support services on both counts.

    Susanna Reid:

    Of course children are as much victims of domestic violence as parents. Julie Gillard, England says: What are they going to do for the children who have witnessed domestic violence or suffered in those situations? I was subjected to years of domestic violence and the last attack was carried out in front of my two children. What about the children's rights and how it affects them?

    Debora Singer:

    I think that is a very good point and I think there are a lot of concerns about children partly because witnessing domestic violence is actually counted as harm under the Children's Act and we also know that a high proportion of children from homes where there's domestic violence against one of the adults, also experiencing that domestic violence directly.

    This legislation itself doesn't put in specific measures naming children. But we do know that the sorts of things we were talking about earlier - the restraining orders - could also have the effect of protecting the children. Also there's this general principle about providing some sort of joined up system of civil and criminal justice would also help with protecting children. Because at the moment if an abusive partner wants contact with the child, they apply through the civil courts and the civil courts might not know or might not take seriously enough the fact that there has been domestic violence in that relationship in the past.

    Susanna Reid:

    A Miles, Solihull, UK is interested in one of the technicalities of the Bill and how this changes the current law. He says: I thought breaching Harassment Orders was already a Criminal Offence - is this not the case? And how does today's Bill change that?

    Debora Singer:

    That's very true and I think that's why this suggestion that seems to be around for your viewers and in the media that this is a hugely an overkill measure is there. But if you think again of this victim of violence who has gone through the criminal justice courts and separately has to go to the civil courts to get this restraining order - the idea of this is Bill is let's put it all in one place. Let the protection and the safety of the victim be considered by one court at one time and if the situation we've got here is - ok we might have a criminal offence, we might not, but we have got a need for a victim of crime, whether they're male or female, to be protected then it's a way of making sure that happens without the delay of having to go to two different courts and having to provide two different sets of information to those courts.

    Susanna Reid:

    Some people are asking questions about how this could be put to malicious use, let's say. Aziz, UK says: What happens if the wife wants to take a revenge on her husband and she tells lies to the police using this new law?

    John Gadd, USA says: What will you do with the women that "falsely accuses" a father of violence in order to win child custody? This is a major problem currently in the United States.

    Kerry-jane, UK says: What quality control measures will be in place to prevent the risk of malicious applications of this new law?

    I suppose in any new legislation there was always a risk that some people could use it to their advantage when it isn't entirely legitimate.

    Debora Singer:

    Yes, I think that is always a possibility. With this legislation though, if you were going to go for a malicious prosecution, you would have to be claiming that somebody had committed a criminal offence, you would have to persuade the police of that, you would have to persuade the Crown Prosecution Service that there's sufficient evidence for them to think that it's worth prosecuting and then at the end of the court case, when the judge or the magistrates have heard all the evidence, the judge or the magistrate would also have to think that there is sufficient evidence that the so-called victim is actually in danger from the so-called perpetrator. So there are quite a lot of hoops that you would have to get through which I would hope would prevent anybody with a malicious intent getting past the first or second hurdle.

    Susanna Reid:

    Paul from the UK has e-mailed us and asks: How much of this legislation was penned by politicians and how much was penned by lawyers?

    Is this a political Bill or is this really absolutely essential to tackle this problem of domestic violence?

    Debora Singer:

    I think what's interesting is there hasn't been any specific legislation against domestic violence for 30 years. In the summer there was a major consultation which the Home Office put out about domestic violence and they will have taken responses from a whole range of people - organisations like ourselves, Victim Support and other organisations who specialise in domestic violence and lots of individuals who've been affected by domestic violence, I'd imagine.

    My understanding is they have taken into account what those organisations and individuals have said and that what's come out in the legislation does reflect, as far as I understand, a response to that consultation and also isn't the whole of it. Because only some things need to be legislated for and I think there are other ideas of policies and procedures that are being proposed and that will hopefully come into play which will also help to protect victims of domestic violence.

    Susanna Reid:

    That's all we've got time for. Our thanks to Debora Singer from Victims Support and to you for all of your many questions. I hope that we've provided answers to at least some of them. From me, Susanna Reid and the rest of the interactive team, thank you for watching and goodbye.

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