New definition of domestic violence start of slippery slope
Clarity of thought and precision of language needed in wider definition of domestic violence, writes Patrick Nicholls.
Times change. These days a would-be solicitor's first contact with the law will be trying to fit in a lecture which does not conflict with the more interesting aspects of university life.
My experience was different. As a teenaged articled clerk, who had yet to attend a single law lecture, the receptionist's announcement that, "There's a man in the front office," would mean that I would have to learn whatever law applied to his situation very quickly indeed. Except that one day, it wasn't a man, it was a woman; a woman with severe bruising over both eyes and a heavily split lip, who had been severely beaten by her scumbag of a husband.
I was to see much more of that before I gave up law for politics, but until that day in 1968, I had had absolutely no acquaintance whatsoever with men who treat women in that way.
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So, first question – had she gone to the police? Indeed she had, but she had been told that there was nothing they could do because "it was a 'domestic'." You do not need a law degree to reach behind you, pull out the relevant volume of Halsbury's Laws of England and consider the definitions of what was then assault, contrary to common law, actual bodily harm, contrary to S47, Offences Against the Persons Act 1861, or grievous bodily harm, contrary to S18 and S20. Borderline S18/20, certainly S47, up to five years' imprisonment on indictment.
Right, time to acquaint the duty sergeant at the police station with my reading of the 1861 Act and his duties under it.
"Yes," he conceded, "it would be ABH, but it's a 'domestic' and anyway, women never press charges because they just get another hiding."
Are you appalled? I was, but that was then and it isn't that way now. Far from domestic violence being treated as a defence to a charge of assault, it is regarded as one of the most serious examples of it.
Certainly, its commission in a domestic context may make it harder to address, but no police officer today would dare to brush off such an incident in that way.
What then should we make of the announcement this week that CAADA (Co-ordinated Action Against Domestic Abuse) has "hailed Government proposals to widen the definition of domestic violence to include victims under 18 and those who have experienced ongoing controlling behaviour from partners?" That might sound a good idea, but wait! Language matters: violence is violence. Unless the language of the criminal law is to be neutered in the name of political correctness, government can no more change the definition of violence than it can define a circle as a square. Furthermore, the 1861 Act affords its protection to everyone, adult and teenager alike, and has done so for the last 150 years.
But now the definition is to encompass behaviour which is not only not violent, but which, unlike real violence, is defend subjectively, not objectively. The new definition of domestic violence "will be widened to include patterns of controlling or coercive behaviour, such as restricting access to finances or regulating someone's every day life".
So think about it; perhaps you should be giving your stroppy teenage son rather more pocket money than you are; and are you really entitled to regulate your 14-year-old daughter's every day life, by confining her to her bedroom to stop her bunking off to a rave?
Indeed, when the proposals come in, the "victim" will not even have to know that they are a victim, or as the CAADA chief executive, Diana Barran, put it: "By changing the definition, we will shine a light on the many victims who are constantly being controlled by their partners, and who may not realise that they are living with domestic abuse, but who are nonetheless at serious risk."
Some people are controlling and unpleasant. They can make lousy spouses and dreadful parents.
It is an unhappy fact of life that while you can divorce your spouse, you are pretty much stuck with your parents, but far from alleviating the sum of human suffering, by pretending that in the end everything untoward in a parent or spouse's behaviour is tantamount to domestic violence, you risk restoring the attitudes to real domestic violence that existed 40 years ago.
What I saw that day in 1968, and what I was to encounter so often in the years that followed, was violence, real violence, inflicted by a man upon a woman. The woman, who sat bleeding in my office was all too well aware of the violence to which she had been subjected. She knew she was a victim.
No one can doubt CAADA's good intentions, but then the road to hell is paved with good intentions. What was needed here was clarity of thought and precision of language and the failure to deliver either will lead, I fear, to yet one more demonstration of the law of unintended consequences.