Should solicitors receive training to help support victims of domestic abuse

Increased Protection For Domestic Abuse Victims

It is hard to go anywhere this week without hearing something about Harry and Meghan, or the term #Megxit.

The news that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have decided to take a step back from their royal duties and seek financial independence seems to have divided the nation and the greatest scandals of the decade!

It seems that people’s opinions are divided on the subject, many calling it the right decision following their treatment from the tabloids and one they can commend, to others spouting words such as ‘coercive control’ on Meghan’s part and conspiracies that it is a ploy for Meghan to receive a better divorce settlement and parental rights if they reside in the United States.

No matter what your view on the whole debacle, there has been one clear message throughout, and that is the relentlessness of which the press has, for the want of a better word, “bullied” the couple. Each move has been met with scrutiny and comment, with no option for the couple to escape the press’ gaze. In my personal opinion, I know very few people that could have lived with the day to day intrusion.

Of course, the majority of us do not receive royal privileges or have the press hounding us each day; but for many, they experience a similar harassment from other members of the general public.

The Protection From Harassment Act 1997 (PHA) made the actions of stalking and bullying criminal offenses. The term harassment is used to cover repeated attempts to ‘causing alarm or distress’ and includes repeated attempts to impose unwanted communication and contact that could be expected to cause distress or fear in any reasonable person.

When it comes to those who practise family law, a main area in which clients experience harassment is through domestic abuse, where harassment causing distress or harm is perpetrated by an intimate partner or family member. Victims of this form of harassment are offered means of protection through the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 and Family Law Act 1996.

One option is a non-molestation order; a special injunction aimed at preventing a partner or former partner from harming a victim or their children, which if breached becomes an arrestable offence with a prison sentence of up to five years.

The criteria may not always be met by a victim for a non-molestation order, but in these cases, they may be able to apply to for a restraining order; however as these are issued during criminal proceedings it may be difficult for a victim to prove harassment and even get to the stage of criminal proceedings.

Where the victim has suffered domestic abuse there are further options; a Domestic Violence Protection Notice (DVPN) or Domestic Violence Protection Order (DVPO). Introduced by the Crime and Security Act 2010 it allowed the police and courts to put in place protective measures following a domestic abuse incident, where there has not been enough evidence to charge the abuser.

Sitting somewhere between a non-molestation order and restraining order, the DVPN and DVPOs appear to fill a gap, however a review found that use of the tools were patchy by police:

“Many forces are still not using DVPOs as widely as they could, and opportunities to use them are continuing to be missed. Over half of the forces that were able to provide data on the use of DVPOs reported a decrease in the number of DVPOs granted per 100 domestic abuse related offences in the 12 months to 30 June 2016 compared to the 12 months to 31 March 2015.”

The lack of use also lead to a super-complaint to the HM Inspectorate of Constabulary by the Centre for Women’s Justice, with the blame mainly falling on training in the police force.

As DVPNs and DVPOs required the perpetration to have been ‘violent towards or has threatened violence towards’ this has lead to a grey area where there has been no evidence of physical violence. This would mean victims that have suffered repetitive attempts at contact, harassment and stalking, would be left with having to apply for either a non-molestation order by themselves. The 6-page application form asks for proof of the need for protection as well as questions regarding the family home, possibly a difficult section for victim who have been financially controlled with no knowledge of family finances. The hearing for the non-molestation order will also require the victim to attend and give evidence, as well as the abuser defending themselves.

The Domestic Abuse Bill currently awaiting its time in the House of Commons will hopefully alleviate some of the issues victims of domestic abuse face in regard to DVPN and DVPOs, as well as facing their abusers in court.

The Bill looks to replace DVPN and DVPOs with Domestic Abuse Protection Orders (DAPOs) and Domestic Abuse Protection Notices (DAPNs). The new measures would “combine the strongest elements of the various existing orders and provide a flexible pathway for victims and practitioners.” The fact that the orders would require “abuse” rather than “violent” behaviour has been welcomed by many.

A DAPO would also allow the victim to apply, not just the police and would be judged on civil standards of proof, on a balance of probabilities, rather than the criminal standard, allowing for an application to be made even if a perpetrator has been acquitted in criminal proceedings.

There are still many concerns raised by practitioners, women’s and abuse charities as well as the police in the implementation of DAPOs and DAPNs, but we can only hope that the concerns will be raised in further discussions in Parliament and positive steps taken to help victims of domestic abuse.

As with any law, there is a fine line between protecting the victims and protecting those who are falsely accused.

Do you think the proposed DAPOs and DAPNs will help victims of domestic abuse and do the measures go far enough?

Want to have your say? Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read more stories

Join nearly 3,000 other family practitioners - Check back daily for all the latest news, views, insights and best practice and sign up to our e-newsletter to receive our weekly round up every Thursday morning. 

You’ll receive the latest updates, analysis, and best practice straight to your inbox.