New anti domestic violence laws may deter victims from seeking help

04 Jan 2007

Family solicitors fear that new laws designed to punish perpetrators of domestic abuse may actually work against the interests of their victims and reduce the likelihood of offences being reported, putting victims at risk.

From July 1st this year, the Domestic Violence Crime and Victims Act makes breach of a non-molestation or occupation order a criminal offence, punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment. Until now it has been a civil offence.

Leading family lawyers group Resolution fears that the change may deter victims from reporting attacks or taking action if they know that the perpetrator could end up with a criminal record.

“We are in no way playing down the devastating effects of domestic violence in all its forms. Neither are we questioning the good intentions of the legislators. But, first and foremost, the law should protect the victim rather than punish the perpetrator. In extreme cases criminal charges may be the only solution, but for the sake of families, these disputes are often better dealt with through the civil and family court system,” says Jane McCulloch, Resolution’s vice chair.

As a result of the new law, the victim would not be represented or involved in the criminal proceedings and the perpetrator would not be eligible for legal aid funding.

Section twelve of the new act gives the criminal court the power to make restraining orders for any violent offence, even on acquittal. “The risk here is that, even when acquitted, the alleged perpetrator could be kept away from the family home with devastating effects on family relationships.”

Resolution works closely with other organisations committed to alleviating the suffering of those facing domestic abuse. It is now calling for clear guidance for the police and criminal courts to help safeguard families who may find themselves newly caught up in the criminal system.