Solicitor Elizabeth Owen, in our Family Law team, looks at the implications of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services’ (HMICFRS) review into how police respond to violence against women and girls.
News headlines have this week begun reporting on the outcome of a review by HMICFRS into how police respond to violence against women and girls. A link to the final report can be accessed here.
The report sets out five overarching recommendations, in amongst which make a direct appeal to the Home Office to add the policing of violence against women and girls to the Strategic Policing Requirement (‘SPR’). This suggests that HMICFRS’ recommendation is that violence against girls and women represents as serious a national threat as terrorism, threats to public order, and child sexual abuse.
Other recent headlines have again highlighted high profile instances of violence against women, including the murders of Caroline Crouch by her husband and of Sarah Everard by a serving Police Officer as she made her way home.
Add to this the summary provided by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) in the year ending March 2018, which reports that over half (57%) of all violent incidents were experienced by repeat victims, and that this was most common among victims of domestic violence.
The HMICRFS’ findings are perhaps welcome recognition then that structural and endemic change needs to be effected to protect victims of violence, which, statistically, disproportionately affect women and girls.
However, greater recognition, especially in the family law arena, is finding ever surer footing of abuse not simply being a matter of violence, but of an abuse of power by dominant parties in unequal relationships.
The recent Court of Appeal decision in F v M, specifically explored and described coercive and controlling behaviour as ‘a particularly insidious type of abuse’, recognising it as a form of abuse whereby a pattern of particular incidents, which may of themselves appear insignificant, build over a period of time to a pattern of behaviour resulting in harm to the victim, both psychological and emotional, leading to the loss of the victims’ sense of autonomy and self-worth. The significance, perhaps, of the judgment of F v M is the recognition that family law ‘system’ is not currently designed in a way that such abuse can be readily captured and enunciated. It is an illustration of how systemic the issue of recognising and tackling abuse is where even the process of describing the behaviour does not fit with the rules within which family law practitioners are expected to constrain themselves.
Another recent decision comes in the form of the conjoined appeals of Re H-N & ors. In one of the appeals, one of the behaviours alleged by the mother was that the father came up behind the mother whilst she was sat on the floor with the couple’s child on her knee and, without warning, put a plastic bag over the mother’s head, and said ‘This is how you should die’. The Judge making a decision about whether to make findings of fact about the mother’s allegations agreed with the mother that the incident took place but decided that “as there was no trigger to this event at all, I am not satisfied that it represented an attempt to kill, a threat to kill or that the mother felt threatened” [para. 169]. The Court of Appeal disagreed and found that in the context of other behaviour by the father, this represented not a ‘prank’, as found by the trial judge, but an example of highly abusive behaviour.
The significance of the appeal judgment is the recognition of the impact of this threat on the mother and the recognition that the trial judge ought to have stood back and questioned whether the evidence established a pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour.
Perhaps the most significant indication of a burgeoning systemic sea change is the passing into law on 29 April 2021, of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. This Act, for the first time, defines ‘domestic abuse’. It, also provides for a new Domestic Abuse Protection Notice and Domestic Abuse Protection Order, which aims to prevent perpetrators from contacting their victims, as well as force them to take positive steps to change their behaviour.
Systemic change is gaining traction. The justice system is beginning to tackle the issues that, either through rigidity, lack of awareness, or lack of resources, is leaving vulnerable those who may already be abused or exploited. The HMICFRS should be a welcome development representing further progress throughout the justice system.
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This article is intended for the use of clients and other interested parties. The information contained in it is believed to be correct at the date of publication, but it is necessarily of a brief and general nature and should not be relied upon as a substitute for specific professional advice.