Protection for domestic violence victims cannot come a moment too soon

If and when the legislation is actually passed it is likely to have taken at least a couple of years before the courts, judiciary, law firms and police are finally versed in the new procedures

The Domestic Abuse Bill 2019 is a rare thing in today’s politics.  It has universal support from all parties and quarters. 

Due to the current impasse over Brexit, however, the schedule for the passage of the Bill into law is anything but clear.  Some sources we have spoken to say that it may end up taking over two years from inception: a lot longer than you might expect for such a piece of uncontentious legislation.

First proposed by the Home Office and Ministry of Justice in draft form by Victoria Atkins MP and David Gauke MP on Monday, 21st January 2019, it has been bedevilled by the lack of Parliamentary time accorded to it.  This has not stopped politicians of every hue protesting its overriding importance to a fairer civil society.

In particular, former Prime Minister Theresa May tied her colours to the mast of the Bill as the one enduring achievement of her premiership. 

A secret scandal

At the National Centre for Domestic Violence (NCDV) we are at the sharp end of society’s dirty little secret: one in twenty women (and it is mainly women, although 5 percent of our clients are men) will suffer from domestic violence at some point in their lives.

We are there to help get emergency legal protection in place for victims of domestic violence and abuse irrespective of financial circumstances, gender, creed or colour.  We do this free of charge and principally by helping victims and survivors get what is called a Non-Molestation Order (NMO).

NMOs have proved vital in the struggle to give victims a breathing space, free from their abusers. Essentially, they prevent a perpetrator from going near a victim or from contacting them. If a perpetrator breaches the Order then they will face a criminal charge with a maximum prison sentence of five years.

The system works by creating an effective preliminary protection and, subject to the right documentation being in place, can be obtained within 24 hours.  The snag has been the sheer cost of getting a family law firm to help.  Solicitors may charge anything up to £2,000 for their services – well beyond the means of many victims – and they tend to take longer to do so.

This is where NCDV comes in:  with a streamlined system, we triage the first enquiry of the victim, help them to see if they are eligible for legal aid and, if they do qualify, we get them represented by a family law firm so that they can get protection. 

Sadly, if you own a house, work full time or even part-time, have over £3,000 in savings or simply have mum helping you out with a few bills each month, chances are you won’t be able to get legal aid.  That is key reason why we exist: we will find a way to get the application to court irrespective of the financial situation of the victim.

How the Bill will work

The Bill aims, very sensibly, to simplify the current range of orders which include NMOs, Occupation Orders, Restraining Orders and DVPOs (Domestic Violence Protection Orders). 

These vary widely in terms of who may apply, the conditions attached to them and the consequences of breaching them.  Currently, there is no single order that works across criminal, family and civil courts.  DVPOs, in particular, are currently limited by their maximum duration of just 28 days. These reforms are overdue.

The government reckons that as many as 55,000 DAPOs will be made in England and Wales every year (contrast this with 26,332 NMOs made in the year ending March 2018)

The devil will, however, lie in the detail of training, implementation by the various types of court and, above all, ineffective enforcement by the police. 

It is common knowledge that our courts are struggling with an ever-increasing caseload and underinvestment in functions that might help them ease it such as online systems.  Police too, are grappling with the consequences of demand and, pace the Prime Minister’s recent announcements, understaffing.

If and when the legislation is actually passed it is likely to have taken at least a couple of years before the courts, judiciary, law firms and police are finally versed in the new procedures, the pilot studies have been run with selected police forces, and any lessons embedded prior to a full national roll-out.

So, given the universal support this piece of draft legislation enjoys, coupled with the fact that the government was prepared to guillotine far more complex pieces of legislation such as the EU Withdrawal Bill, may we make a special plea for MPs to find the parliamentary time to get it finally into law? Victims simply cannot wait. 

Mark Groves, chief executive of the National Centre for Domestic Violence (NCDV).

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