The Attorney General shouldn’t preen himself in the press for his recent success in lengthening too short jail sentences for robbers and burglars (Times & Telegraph both 24.8.16) Instead he should tackle the unduly lenient sentences handed out for domestic abuse – as the Tories’ election manifesto pretended they would.
In a typical case at Teesside Court, a long term abuser got one year’s suspended prison sentence, for violently attacking his partner to stop her leaving him. He bit her on the face, put a knife to her neck, squeezed her throat until she choked, threatened to scald her and use a pellet gun to ‘shoot you through your eye and into your brain’ and fired a pellet into her foot. He threatened to ‘torch’ her house if she called the police. The victim’s personal statement described this treatment as ‘life changing’. She was so scared when he was freed that she was forced into hiding, in effect being imprisoned instead of him. The defendant said on Facebook ‘The c— didn’t win, I’m free’
In eight other cases, the same judge gave suspended sentences to similar culprits, whilst another court, in a single month, freed seven convicted abusers. They included a man who pushed his victim so hard that she hit her head on the ground and another who went to his ex-partner’s home and squeezed her throat until she blacked out.
The Director of a domestic abuse charity describes colleagues nationwide as “constantly frustrated by the sentences given to men who beat women up” Domestic abuse is at epidemic levels in England and Wales. Two women are killed by their partner or ex-partner every week; on average the police receive an emergency call relating to domestic abuse every 30 seconds; domestic abuse-related crime is 8% of total crime and domestic cases are 14.1% of all court prosecutions. 92.4% of defendants are male, 84% of victims are female and 16% are male. Notwithstanding these startling figures, Women’s Aid still estimates that only one in five abuse victims complain to the police, so that the actual prevalence of domestic abuse is hugely higher than these numbers suggest. Of those that do complain to the police, the majority won’t support a prosecution. Many give as their reason, unsurprisingly, a lack of faith in the courts.
The Conservative manifesto undertook to ‘prioritise tackling violence against women and girls’ and, seemingly to confront this issue, promised that;-
‘ To tackle those cases where judges get it wrong, we will extend the scope of the Unduly Lenient Scheme, so a wider range of sentences can be challenged’
Yet nothing has happened. The right for someone affected by an unduly lenient sentence to ask the Attorney General to challenge it in the Court of Appeal applies only to a small list of criminal offences. Typical domestic abuse crimes are not on the list. So whilst people can ask for a review of low sentences for burglary and robbery neither victims, domestic abuse charities, the police, nor the Crown Prosecution Service can – thanks to the Tories failure to act – do anything about sentences which don’t reflect the harm caused to the victim, the perpetrator’s culpability or the wider damage caused to society from the prevalence of domestic abuse.
If the government kept its word, there would be plenty of ammunition to bring change. These cases fly in the face of Guidelines made for the judges by the Sentencing Council. The Council’s role is to consult the public and produce Guidelines so that there is a consistent approach to sentencing for the same offences in different courts. In 2006, the then Labour Home secretary Charles Clarke asked for a definitive guideline on domestic abuse and the one produced shows an impressive grasp of the issues that judges should, long ago, have learnt from. For instance, the Guideline recognises that ill treatment of a domestic partner involves a breach of trust so that it generally deserves a heavier sentence than the same offence against an unconnected person. It also acknowledges that having a good character, -which would usually mitigate a sentence – shouldn’t do so in domestic abuse cases because:
‘One of the factors that can allow domestic violence to go unnoticed for lengthy periods is the ability of the perpetrator to have two personae, a violent one and another so…an offender’s good character in relation to good conduct outside the home should generally be of no relevance’
The Teesside case neatly demonstrates how that level of understanding is missing from the courts – the judge’s reason for suspending the prison sentence and freeing the defendant was, precisely contrary to this guideline, that he had a good character.
Victims who have been coerced and undermined by an abusive partner often fear that they will not be taken seriously or even believed and, historically, that is what has happened. Nowadays, Police and charities work hard to overcome that fear and to instil the confidence to support a prosecution but their efforts are undermined by sentences that, indeed, appear not to take domestic abuse seriously. What is urgent is that the courts condemn domestic abuse and reject any residual cultural acceptance there may be for it by dealing with it, on behalf of society, unequivocally as a serious wrong.
On an Attorney General’s application, the Court of Appeal would certainly reinforce the Guidelines, compelling the Sentencing Council’s insight into the dynamics of domestic abuse onto those judges who lack it and expressing that condemnation themselves. But, they can’t, because that great egalitarian Theresa May has neglected to change the law as she promised. Not for the first time in the domestic abuse arena, the Tories have let victims down.