Tricia Bernal, whose daughter was murdered by an ex-boyfriend, looks across a line of silhouettes on Potter's Field in London, representing the death toll taken by domestic violence. Credit: Johnny Green / PA Images
“When the police told me they wouldn’t charge my ex, I felt like there was no justice for women,” Naomi* explains.
Like most survivors of domestic abuse, 31-year-old Naomi didn’t go to the police the first time her boyfriend kicked her. She didn”t go to the police the first time he broke her finger, the first time he punched her, the first time he tried to strangle her. Only after she found the courage to leave him, and had begun to process the trauma of enduring 18 months of emotional and physical abuse, did she turn to the police and ask for justice.
“I spent over five hours giving a statement,” Naomi tells me. “They didn’t offer me a glass of water or a cup of tea. They asked me why I hadn’t gone to the police before. Weeks later I learnt that because the ‘common assaults’ were committed more than six months before I reported, my ex wouldn’t be charged with them. That there’s a statute of limitations on common assault, and it had run out.
“As a result, I felt like the state agreed with what my ex used to tell me during the abuse - that being punched, strangled, and having things thrown at me was all okay, was normal, and that I should just shut up and forget about it.”
So is Naomi’s situation the exception? Or is the law as it stands failing survivors of domestic abuse? Currently there is no specific offence for ‘domestic violence’. Instead, offenders who commit violence against their partners are prosecuted under existing laws prohibiting rape, grievous bodily harm, attempted murder etc. In 2004 the Domestic Violence, Crimes and Victims Act defined what domestic violence should cover in law, and the crimes committed in inter-personal relationships were separately criminalised. What I want to understand is whether this act went far enough or whether this lack of a specific law is hindering enforcement and leaving women like Naomi struggling to access justice. Is the problem facing survivors that there isn't a specific law, or that existing laws are simply not being enforced correctly or effectively?
Let’s start with the statistics. Women are overwhelmingly the victims of sustained and repeated domestic abuse. In fact, women make up 89% of victims who endure more than four incidents of abuse. Meanwhile, men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators - in cases of domestic violence between 80-90% of violence against the person reported is by women assaulted by men. On average, a woman experiences 35 incidents of abuse before calling the police.
These incidents may have gone on for months or even years. Many of them will be classified as the ‘common assault’ experienced by Naomi - defined as a crime that’s committed when a person either assaults another person or commits a battery. Because common assault is a summary-only offence normally dealt with in the magistrates court as opposed to in trial with a jury, it has a statute of limitations that expires after six months. As a result, men who assaulted their partners more than six months before the incident is reported to the police cannot be charged under the current law.
To classify assaults committed by a partner as “common” and therefore under a six month statute of limitations is to misunderstand the dynamics of domestic abuse. It’s to ignore the fact that many women wait before they report abuse for a multitude of reasons - including fear, the belief that he’ll change, distrust of the authorities, panic that their children will be taken away, or simply because they have no where safe to go. Surely when a woman finally turns to the police for help, she should not be told that the crimes committed against her will never be heard in a courtroom, just because they happened seven months, a year, five years, before?
I spoke to Olivia Piercy from the organisation Rights of Women, who offer legal advice to victims and survivors of domestic abuse. I wanted to better understand the law as it currently works.
“You’re right that there isn’t a specific law on domestic abuse,” she explains. “However, all the incidents that constitute domestic abuse are already crimes. So grievous bodily harm, sexual violence, actual bodily harm and harassment are already illegal and a perpetrator who commits those crimes against a current or former partner should be charged with and convicted of them.”
This has been strengthened since 2015 with the introduction of the coercive control law which recognises emotional and financial abuse as criminal behaviour. However, the coercive control law only applies to incidents committed since December 2015, when the law entered the statute books.
“For me the problem isn’t that domestic abuse isn’t a specific crime,” Piercy goes on to say. “It’s that the current law is not being applied properly. We still have an issue in this country where policing is a postcode lottery. Women can end up with an officer who is sympathetic and will go after her abuser. Or they can end up with an officer who doesn’t take domestic abuse seriously - one who doesn’t equate a serious “domestic” assault as constituting ABH, for example. So rather than seeing more laws introduced, we need to work harder to make sure the existing laws are understood and enforced so that women have better access to justice.”
This lack of understanding of the current law, or lack of enthusiasm for enforcing it, could account for the low rate of prosecutions for coercive control. In the first six months of being introduced, the law was only used 62 times. Considering there are an estimated 1.2 million incidents of domestic abuse in England and Wales every year, we can be fairly certain that 62 uses of the law is a devastatingly low number.
Harriet Wistrich, founder of Justice for Women as well as the newly-launched Centre for Women’s Justice, agrees with Piercy that the problem isn”t the lack of laws, but attitudes within and beyond the police.
“One of the concerns I have,” Wistrich explains, “is that we still live in a society where domestic violence is not taken seriously. We still have news articles refer to a man murdering his partner as ‘a domestic incident’. I worry that if we introduced a specific law for domestic abuse, then unsympathetic police will take the incident less seriously - will see it as ‘just a domestic’ rather than ABH, rape, assault etc. and therefore not pursue it with rigour.”
Wistrich’s concerns also relate to the application of the coercive control law, in relation to abusers.
“We know that perpetrators often accuse their partners of emotionally abusing them, and there’s still a narrative of the “nagging wife” bringing abuse on herself,” she says. “There is a concern that the coercive control law will be used by abusive men as another way to victimise their partners, and the same could be true of a specific domestic abuse law.”
Both Piercy and Wistrich are unanimous in their assessment that what needs to change are attitudes, rather than laws. That it is the current law that needs to be enforced, not a new law added to the statute books.
“You see it again and again in what police tell victims,” says Piercy. “They don”t understand the current laws. They don’t identify it when a crime is clearly reported and evidenced. That’s what needs to change - and it doesn’t change by bringing in new laws that in turn won’t be understood or applied properly.”
I agree that social attitudes need to change - that we need to see violence against women and girls taken more seriously. We need to improve sex education so that young people grow up knowing what is and isn’t acceptable in a relationship; we need to stop the victim blaming narrative that leads to headlines proclaiming ‘Man killed nagging wife’; and we need to ensure that men who choose to abuse women are charged, prosecuted and convicted. When a man is convicted of assault against his partner, the sentence must be severe and work as a deterrent. None of these things are currently the case.
More than bringing in new laws, we need to have a police force that is fully trained in dealing with domestic abuse, and end the lottery that means one woman may receive help and support, while another woman is told (as one anonymous source informed me) that “I’m just not interested in domestic abuse cases.”
But we still have this problem of the statute of limitations applying to summary-only offences like common assault and harassment. For victims of domestic abuse who may not report an assault until months after the event, they can be left with the feeling that the violent acts committed against them have somehow been excused by the state.
This was the case for Naomi, who was left feeling that the state had colluded with her ex when they didn’t pursue her allegations against him.
“It was as though he knew the law and knew he would get away with it,” she said. “He never took the police seriously because he knew they would never charge him.”
So what happens next? Clearly the statute of limitations on crimes such as common assault obstructs justice for women like Naomi. But as Piercy and Wistrich point out, bringing in new laws could worsen the situation for women who already struggle to be taken seriously by the police and the criminal justice system. Personally, I want to see more training for the police and the CPS on domestic abuse, so that every woman reporting a violent partner is listened to and the crime committed against them taken seriously. I also believe that in cases of domestic abuse, the statute of limitations on common assault and harassment should not apply. After all, to put a time limit on this crime is fundamentally to ignore the specific dynamics of gender-based violence and the multifaceted reasons that prevent women from reporting after the first punch is thrown.
Naomi is now waiting to see if her ex will be charged with one count of ABH. The realisation that her abuser would not be charged for numerous common assaults simply because she had not reported the incidents within a six month period added to her trauma.
“I am beginning to believe there is no justice for women in this situation,” she told me. “That it’s effectively legal in the UK to assault, beat and harass women. What happened to me affected my life in so many ways and now I have no hope for justice. I just want to feel I’ve done enough so that I can walk away from all of this without feeling responsible for what he does next.”
*Names have been changed