SOAS University of London

Centre of Islamic and Middle Eastern Law

National Consultation Meeting to discuss Home Office Consultation Paper on Domestic Violence

THIS EVENT IS ARCHIVED
Various Speakers

Date: 1 July 2003Time: 9:00 AM

Finishes: 1 July 2003Time: 6:00 PM

Venue:

Type of Event: Meeting

On 1st July 2003, the Southall Black Sisters (SBS), a national black and Asian women's organisation, held a national consultation meeting to discuss the recent Home Office Paper Safety and Justice: the government's proposals on domestic violence (this consultation paper is available at www.homeoffice.gov.uk). The meeting was attended by a variety of organisations, including voluntary organisations and statutory bodies, women's rights groups and human rights advocates.

The meeting was intended to highlight the advantages and disadvantages of the consultation paper and to achieve a minimum consensus on fundamental issues the Home Office should further consider in its domestic violence (DV) policy and law reforms, both in general and with regard to black and ethnic minority (BEM) women in particular. The Solicitor-General, Harriet Harman MP, attended as a guest speaker.

The meeting welcomed the consultation paper as the first significant attempt by the government to address DV. Several advances were highlighted; including the government's recognition of the need to ensure increased awareness and education, particularly among young people and offenders, and undertaking criminal justice reform. Also welcomed was the government's assertion that in relation to DV victims subject to immigration control it 'will move to ensure that victims can get access to safety and support, including refuge services…'(section 4 para 19). However, concern was raised as to what this would entail. The proposed establishment of the 24-hour help-line for DV victims was warmly received, but participants noted that for this to be successful it needed to be matched by 24-hour services and consequently sufficient funding. The initial impact assessment on race and gender (see annex C of the consultation paper) was welcomed as a start to data collection on DV in the BEM communities.

However, participants identified several outstanding areas of concern, including:

1. Methodology – the Home Office drafting process

There was an apparent failure on the part of the government to include the experiences of DV victims and those working with DV victims in general, and in particular of black and ethnic minority (BEM) women.

It was suggested that the Home Office should establish a working group on DV to include members of the voluntary sector, which would have an active role in policy making.

There was insufficient identification of the specificity of the experience of DV by BEM and marginalised women (particularly the disabled and those with mental health problems), and thus the consultation paper did not contain any measures to address these groups of victims.

It was recommended that the specificity of BEM women's experience of DV should be integrated into mainstream policy on DV.

2. Definitions

The consultation paper's definition of DV (restricted to former or current partners in an intimate relationship) was heavily criticised. Such a definition does not take account of BEM or culturally specific issues such as honour crimes, honour killings, forced marriage and FGM, where DV may be perpetrated by family members including parents and their relatives, siblings, husbands and their relatives, and/or by the wider community.

Important issues not addressed in the consultation paper included:

Racism which can affect the access BEM victims have to support service and the criminal justice system.

Trafficking and prostitution in general and the experiences of BEM of these phenomena.

Participants identified a general need for more race and gender monitoring research, and particularly for such research to be conducted by BEM women researchers.

3. Criminal Justice

Participants considered it crucially important to have a review of defences to murder, particularly of the partial defence of provocation, because it is used by male offenders to justify killing their female victims. Further, participants wanted more information on reforms to self-defence which is currently denied as a defence to women that kill their abusers. However both these issues have been excluded from the Home Office Paper and will be addressed by the Law Commission.

The consultation paper focused on sentencing, and participants wanted to know whether DV would be considered an aggravating factor in sentencing policy.

4. Support services

Participants identified the general lack of central government funding for core support services especially provided by the voluntary sector in general and smaller organisations in particular.

It was suggested that targeted funding is needed for specialist services, for victims from BEM communities, those with disabilities, mental health problems and dependency issues.

5. Immigration

Participants agreed on the urgent need for a review of immigration legislation and policy which denies the rights of women suffering DV.

Increasing the "probationary period" from one year to two years has been detrimental to victims of DV. The rule simply prolongs a victim's exposure to DV.

The no recourse to public funding rule restricts women's financial ability to leave abusive relationships as they do not have access to funds to meet the cost of renting (in a refuge or elsewhere) or living expenses.

It was suggested that an exemption clause to the no access to public funding rule be created for women escaping DV and to provide access to benefits and housing.

The above concerns will be included in a resolution drafted by SBS on behalf of the national meeting, and will serve as a resolution of consensus among signatories.

In her speech, Harriet Harman identified several key issues, including a need for change in attitudes, gender issues, the DV Bill, the law on homicide, immigration and the role of culture. Firstly, the attitude of acceptance must be challenged, the culture of justification must be combated and terms such as describing a relationship as "stormy" must rejected and re-defined as violence. Secondly, DV is not gender neutral, it is invariably about control by men over women, particularly sexual ownership, and agencies on the ground are recognising this, including the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. The CPS in particular, will no longer have a blanket policy of not prosecuting when the victim withdraws a complaint. Thirdly, the DV Bill will be sent through Parliament late 2003/early 2004. It contains three themes: DV is a public interest matter – it is not private, the State is intervening purposefully; increasing early intervention and "diverting people into the criminal justice system" to prevent escalation; and refusal to accept excuses for criminality. Fourthly, in response to the fact that 120 women are killed every year by current or former partners as compared with 30 men, the government is reviewing the law on homicide. There is an ongoing homicide review aimed at identifying risk factors and increasing understanding of patterns of violence. The Law Commission will be extensively reviewing the defence of provocation. Additionally the Director of Public Prosecutions will issue guidance to all prosecutors that in cases of a "wife-killing" the prosecution will charge murder and if the husband-defendant wants to plead provocation he must do so in court to the jury rather than plea-bargaining. Further the Sentencing Advisory Panel (SAP) will issue a consultation paper on sentencing for this issue, particularly in cases of manslaughter where sentences appear to be lessening. Once the SAP has finalised a position this will go to the Court of Appeal who will pronounce a new tariff. In relation to provocation Harriet Harman raised some important issues to debate, such as the problematic nature of the defence of provocation in allowing a man to blame his V, thereby re-victimising both her and her family through the Court proceedings. Does provocation based on sexual jealously have a place in the 21st century? Further, she noted that where women kill their abusers, the courts have on occasion allowed a defence under provocation to be pursued, thereby providing a mechanism for mitigation. Whilst the intention of the courts is admirable, Harriet Harman suggested that provocation is not the appropriate defence for such cases, rather such situations are more readily comparable to self-defence or diminished responsibility. Provocation, she noted, is based on anger, whereas self-defence, like DV, is based on fear. Fifthly, in terms of immigration Harriet Harman stated that there are no proposals to discard or amend the no access to public funds rule, but the government is committed to getting people to independent safety. Lastly, on the issue of culture Harriet Harman stated that perpetrators should not have any recourse to cultural sensitivity considerations, as a crime is a crime. However, great cultural sensitivity is required when dealing with victims of domestic violence, particularly those trying to escape DV. She urged the group to continue their good works and to continue feeding into the government consultation process.

(By Sanchita Hosali, Research Assistant, CIMEL-INTERIGHTS Project on Strategies to Address 'Crimes of Honour')