On Monday the government unveiled its new strategy to tackle domestic abuse. This follows a consultation exercise carried out last year which drew over 3,000 responses.
The new measures are:
Introducing the first ever statutory government definition of domestic abuse, which will include economic abuse
Establishing the office of the Domestic Abuse Commissioner and setting out the Commissioner’s functions and powers
Providing for a new Domestic Abuse Protection Notice and Domestic Abuse Protection Order
Prohibiting perpetrators of abuse from directly cross-examining their victims in person in the family courts, and also giving the court discretion to prevent cross-examination in person where it would diminish the quality of the witness’ evidence or cause the witness significant distress
Creating a statutory presumption that complainants of an offence involving behaviour which amounts to domestic abuse are eligible for special measures in the criminal courts
Enabling domestic abuse offenders to be subject to polygraph testing as a condition of their licence following their release from custody
Placing the guidance supporting the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme on a statutory footing
Ensuring that where a local authority, for reasons connected with domestic abuse, grants a new secure tenancy to a social tenant who had or has a secure lifetime or assured tenancy (other than an assured shorthold tenancy) this must be a secure lifetime tenancy
And supporting ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (the Istanbul Convention), by extending the extraterritorial jurisdiction of the criminal courts in England and Wales to further violent and sexual offences.
While we will have to await the passage of the bill through parliament to see the final package, one thing of particular note to us as criminal lawyers is the proposal to create a Domestic Abuse Protection Notice and Domestic Abuse Protection Order.
This will be based on the existing regime for criminal behaviour orders (formerly known as ASBOs). Breach of these orders will carry imprisonment of up to 5 years.
While the existing legislative provisions could be used in the context of domestic violence, they rarely are. What we have seen over the years is the specific tailoring of the framework to meet particular problems (in terrorism and trafficking for example). We can, therefore, expect the effect of these orders to impact quickly, resulting in stiff prison sentences for those who breach them. The government estimates that hundreds more offenders may face imprisonment each year.
We do however foresee some real problems. Domestic abuse is a particularly complex societal problem, relationships are often problematic and rocky, and it is possible that breach will be used as a ‘weapon’ against many defendants. It will, therefore, be imperative to ensure that recipients of these orders understand the severe impacts and consequences that will follow. It will also be essential to ensure that orders are only made in appropriate cases.
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