The Independent

Crackdown unveiled on domestic violence

By Robert Verkaik, Legal Affairs Correspondent
The Independent
19 November 2001

Social workers, charities and the police are to be given wide powers to seek restraining orders against and recover costs from men who beat their wives or partners.

The move follows ministers' concerns that women are too frightened or unwilling to take their complaints to court. Under the new scheme, specified organisations such as local authorities would be able to bring civil claims on behalf of victims of violence in the home.

Ministers believe that prosecutions of domestic violence in criminal courts fail because too few women will testify against husbands or partners.

Home Office research shows that about 25 per cent of violent crime is in the home, but only one in three attacks resulting in injury is ever reported to the police or reaches the courts.

Last week a coroner was told that Karl Bluestone, a Kent policeman, had a known history of beating his wife before he killed her and two of their young sons.

Violent husbands or partners sued by the police, or one of the other named organisations, will be restrained by a judge's order. They will also be liable for legal costs of about £1,000 and face arrest if they continue to harass the women.

But lawyers warned yesterday that the new powers could lead to the decriminalisation of domestic violence in the criminal justice system. A spokeswoman for the Solicitors Family Law Association (SFLA) said: "The focus for the police must be to regard domestic violence as a serious criminal offence and act accordingly. We would not wish to see any deviation from this approach; it is the only way to change social attitudes to domestic violence, which affects one in four families and can shape children's lives."

Victim support groups have advised the Government that women who are in a vulnerable position should be spared having to take legal action to end violence in the home. By allowing third parties to take advantage of the civil courts' relaxed rules of evidence and the lower burden of proof, the new powers could help protect thousands of women.

Yesterday, the Government said the principal civil claims would be "non-molestation orders", which ban men from contacting their victims, or an "occupation order", prohibiting men from their family homes. These would be exercised in special domestic violence courts that would have joint criminal and civil jurisdiction.

Rosie Winterton, a minister at the Lord Chancellor's Department, said the Government had yet to establish how many organisations would be allowed to bring the new third-party actions. A spokeswoman said yesterday: "Possible candidates for this role include social services departments, voluntary groups working with survivors of domestic violence as well as the police."

Ms Winterton said: "The Government is concerned to ensure that the range of remedies available to survivors of domestic violence provides sufficient support and protection."

A spokesman for the department said a particular emphasis of the initiative would be on "greater liaison with all parties involved in domestic violence". These include doctors who have information about patients' injuries and teachers who suspect pupils come from abusive families.

But Helen Jane Arnold, of the SFLA, warned: "Because the majority of abuse takes place in private, it is difficult to see how someone else can give a full account of events."

2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd