Justice for Jane Clough

Vera Baird writes about the small concession wrung from a government which is uniformly poor on women’s issues.

Vera Baird QC is a barrister, writer and lecturer, as well as Co-Director of Astraea: Gender Justice (Research and Education)

Yesterday saw one small victory for women over the Tory government. The Justice for Jane Clough Campaign and the Labour shadow team forced a concession from Crispin Blunt, the minister well known for championing anonymity for rape defendants, and in charge of the iniquitous legal aid bill. It is a new prosecution right of appeal against bail that could protect women who are fleeing from violent relationships.

It took great courage for Jane Clough, in 2009, a nurse and the mother of a new baby to complain to the police about her treatment at the hands of her partner, Jonathan Vass, who was a steroid-taking strongman.

He was charged with nine rapes, three assaults and one sexual assault as a result and appeared at court that December.

The Crown Prosecution Service told the judge that Vass was extremely likely to approach Jane again and that he should be kept in custody. Nonetheless Judge Simon Newell gave him bail.

In fear, Jane went into hiding at her parent’s home but Vass knifed her to death on her way to work on 25th July 2010 at Blackpool Victoria Hospital.

Shadow justice minister Helen Goodman strongly criticized Newell’s decision in a commons committee yesterday.

Some judges undervalue serious allegations of violence from a partner. They seem to fear that it is a battle in a domestic war which may come to nothing and mediate their concern by granting bail with a condition that the defendant should not contact the complainant.

A judge should refuse bail if there is a risk of interfering with a witness. This is never more likely than when the principal witness is an intimate partner who was dominated by the defendant but has now escaped his grasp and whose evidence can send him to prison.

Further, there is considerable evidence that a domestic abuser becomes desperate to reassert his power when his victim complains, and his violence can dramatically escalate.

No bail condition will impede such a person, in such a state of mind, with such a lot to lose, from finding the complainant and, one way or another, stopping the proceedings.

This means that women, like Jane, who have summoned up the courage to leave their violent partners, can be left by the authorities at their mercy.

After her murder Jane’s devastated family started the campaign that culminated yesterday in Helen Goodman’s successful bid for a prosecution right to appeal against a grant of bail. There is currently an appeal when magistrates grant bail but not if it is done by a Judge.

The Cloughs highlight further issues from Jane’s case. CPS abandoned the rape charges when Vass pleaded guilty to murder, though hours of her taped complaints were available to the court.

This means that her original wrong has not been put right and that Vass is not a convicted sex offender. He is not on the sex offenders register; he will not be managed as a sex offender in prison and will therefore be as dangerous to women on release as he is to women now.

It also adds nine abandoned rape charges to the low conviction figures that continue to deter women from reporting sexual abuse day to day.

The appeal right has the weakness that the appellate judge may be another Newell, as poor as the first in understanding intimate violence. Its hope is that a second application, in itself, might promote better awareness. The right will apply to all serious crimes but current judicial culture makes it is imperative for cases like Jane’s.

Yesterday Blunt had either to accept the spirit of the amendment or deny the justice of the Cloughs’ cause in their presence. Jane died in July 2010 and the appeal right should have been in this Bill in the first place. By defending the judge and being as vague as he could about timing, Blunt made clear that this concession was being wrung from him.

The Cloughs are to be congratulated for turning their heart rending loss to some good.

See also:

Exposed: The legal aid minister’s £97,000 conflict of interestAlex Hern, October 11th 2011

Tory MP: People opposed to legal aid cuts are “irresponsible and unhelpful”Jonny Mulligan, October 5th 2011

How domestic violence victims risk losing support because of the cutsRichard Exell, September 1st 2011

Fat cats will continue to milk the legal aid budget – while the vulnerable sufferJonny Mulligan, June 22nd 2011

Two women a week die from domestic violence; legal aid cuts will see moreJonny Mulligan, June 16th 2011

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