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Domestic Violence: Law changes but gaps remain
THE GOVERNMENT'S Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act came into force last week. When the Bill was first announced last year, David Blunkett promised that it would be "the biggest overhaul of the law (on domestic violence issues) since the 1970's".
Eleanor Donne, national chair of the Campaign Against Domestic Violence (CADV) asks whether it lives up to this claim.
THE ACT contains some welcome measures to enable the police and courts to intervene more quickly and effectively against abusers. Currently, abusers routinely breach injunctions in order to intimidate, harass or even attack ex-partners.
Judges have often been reluctant to attach a power of arrest to injunctions. The victim's only redress has been through the county court, which can be slow and expensive. Making a breach a criminal offence is likely to act as a deterrent.
The civil rights group Liberty and the Law Society have raised concerns that the new 'stay away orders' should not be part of criminal proceedings, but should be dealt with in the civil courts.
However, experience in other countries such as Canada has shown that arresting and, effectively, criminalising the perpetrator reduces the likelihood of re-offending. It sends a message that violence against a partner is no less a crime than violence against a stranger.
There is some recognition of the particular difficulties women may experience in taking their violent ex-partner to court. Some victims of domestic violence will have the option of being treated as 'vulnerable witnesses' and could also prevent the press from publishing details of their personal lives.
In order to ensure that these new powers are actually used effectively by the police and the courts, there will need to be comprehensive training on domestic violence for all concerned, especially judges.
What it left out
WHILST THERE are some positive measures in the Act, there are also some glaring omissions. In spite of intense lobbying, the government has not addressed current problems relating to child contact arrangements.
Groups such as Fathers4Justice claim that men get a raw deal in the family law courts. But the courts often put the rights of fathers above the safety of children and ex-partners.
According to Women's Aid, ten children have been killed in England and Wales since 2002 during contact arrangements.
Where domestic violence has been a factor in relationship breakdown, courts should not award contact or residence to the violent parent unless they can be absolutely sure that the child and mother will be safe.
Unfortunately, there will be no further funding for accessible supervised contact centres, despite there being a desperate shortage.
The government's 'spin' in the run-up to this Act is that they are getting tough with the abusers. Measures to remove the abuser from the home, and to enforce court orders keeping them away from their ex-partner so that the victim has the option of staying, are welcome.
It is vital that outreach services, drop-in centres, alarms etc are available to such women.
However, the first priority should always be the safety of the victim and family, and often staying put is not a safe option. One concern is that the government's 'hidden agenda' is to reduce the cost to local authority homelessness departments of families fleeing domestic violence.
The Act has not made it easier in practical terms for someone to leave a violent partner. The £18 million allocated earlier in the year for refuges/safe havens, though a start, is nowhere near enough to provide a place for every woman that needs one.
There is a need for many more 'specialist' refuges for black and minority ethnic women, disabled women and those with mental health problems. The government should provide proper funding to establish and staff a national network of refuges.
National Domestic Violence Help line 0808 2000 247 -
Free 24 hour help line run by Women's Aid and Refuge.
Main points in the act
Making breach of a non-molestation order a criminal offence
Extending non-molestation orders and occupation orders to same sex couples and couples who have never lived together.
New powers to criminal courts to issue 'stay away' orders against alleged perpetrators pending trial or even if not convicted of a criminal offence.
Common assault to be an arrestable offence
Victims of domestic violence will have option of giving evidence under 'special measures' (e.g. video linked evidence or behind a screen).
Option of reporting restrictions in court.
Introduction of a Forced Marriage Unit run by Home Office/Foreign Office and raising the age for coming to the UK from abroad as a spouse from 16 to 18 years.
Women need more resources
RECENT CAMPAIGNS and protests by the so-called Fathers4Justice, and the introduction of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act, have once again placed the issue of domestic abuse into the public domain.
Fathers4Justice, with the assistance of Sir Bob Geldof himself, have done their best to belittle the impact that domestic abuse has on the lives of millions of women and children. In fact, they've gone further - accusing many of these women of being liars.
Yet, in the last week we have seen many news items and articles spelling out the realities that women and children who've experienced domestic abuse face on a daily basis.
In Britain, one-in-four women will experience domestic abuse at some time in their lives. Every week two women are murdered by their current or ex-partner. Every minute in the UK the police receive a call for assistance in a domestic violence incident.
Decades of campaigning by women and working-class people in general led to some important improvements for women. One of the most important was the introduction of the welfare state - the provision of council housing, free health care and access to state benefits.
Why have these been so important? In my work with Women's Aid in Scotland some of the main concerns that women have about leaving an abusive relationship are where will I live, how will I survive financially, will I be safe, how will my children cope and what if he finds me?
Having access to good quality council housing, reasonable state benefits, a decent minimum wage, good schools and hospitals are essential in ensuring women and children have more choices and can leave abusive relationships.
Every year in England and Wales around 63,000 women and children are forced to leave their home, their friends and family, their job, their school with perhaps a few black bags with their belongings and go into refuge accommodation. Add to this the estimated 40% of women who present as homeless due to domestic abuse, this makes it the single most quoted reason for becoming homeless.
These women can face an uphill struggle to get decent housing. Decades of under-investment in council housing and Thatcher's right to buy have been a disaster in terms of reducing the numbers of decent houses available for rent.
New Labour's 'bribing' of councils to transfer their housing stock to unelected housing associations in return for cancelling their housing debt posses a serious threat to homeless people.
Currently, only local councils have the legal requirement to house people under the homeless legislation - but how can you house people if you don't own the stock? And while informal arrangements have been made between councils and housing associations - it is very much a lottery.
Of course, once you get your home then you've got to furnish it. If you've been forced to leave your belongings behind - your bed, fridge, cooker, washing machine, your carpets, TV, kids toys etc - then it's a very expensive time. You may get a ridiculously small grant or loan from the benefits agency or fall prey to the loan companies with criminal interest rates.
We need to ensure that we link up the struggles against domestic violence with the campaigns to defend council housing, for a decent minimum wage, the defence of public sector jobs and services as well as campaigning for changes in the law to protect women and children from abuse.
In The Socialist 27 November 2004:
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