Arminka Helic: Training on domestic abuse should be mandatory for judges hearing cases involving it. MPs can make this happen.

14 Apr

Baroness Helic is a Conservative Life peer.

For many victims of domestic abuse, the family courts simply aren’t working. Worse than that: they are being undermined and exploited by abusers, as a continuing means of control over their ex-partners. As the Domestic Abuse Bill returns to the House of Commons on Thursday 15, MPs have a chance to fix that – if they approve crucial amendments from the House of Lords.

Three examples give a sense of the problem. A judge said that a survivor “didn’t look like a victim” because she wore make-up to court. A survivor of domestic violence was ordered to respond to two emails a week from her abuser, within 48 hours for each – giving him continued access to and control over her life. One parent was taken to court 27 times in the space of five years by her abuser. Each example shows a lack of understanding and recognition of domestic abuse and coercive control – and shows how the courts can be used to continue it.

There are many cases like this – too many. The family courts’ approach to domestic abuse remains much the same as twenty years ago, and the system is stacked against survivors. The Ministry of Justice’s Harm Panel Review concluded that a “major overhaul” is needed. And it stressed the importance of detailed and specific training on domestic abuse for all participants in the family law system, reviewed by experts, and including a “cultural change programme to introduce and embed reforms”.

That is why I introduced an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill in the House of Lords, which makes training on domestic abuse mandatory for judges hearing cases involving abuse. Domestic abuse affects all aspects of a family court case. It shapes how participants appear in court, the evidence they give and how they give it. It is a critical factor in determining the interests at stake and how safe child contact is arranged. If the courts are to do their job, then judges need to understand domestic abuse and coercive control.

Without a good knowledge and understanding of domestic abuse and the insidious ways it works, the other – very welcome – measures in the Domestic Abuse Bill will not be enough to protect victims, as the Ministry of Justice’s own review recognised. New mechanisms are no help if abuse continues to be overlooked, misunderstood and dismissed. That is why training is necessary. It has to underpin all the measures in the Bill – and all our efforts to tackle domestic abuse

The Government says that it will pursue more training without primary legislation. But as the Harm Panel Review identified, current training is not working. Promising more of it will not achieve the reform which is needed. If Parliament does not kick start that reform, victims will continue to be failed.

Ministers have also said that Parliament should not get involved in the specifics of judicial training. That’s why my amendment ensures that it is still the Judicial College which is ultimately responsible for shaping and delivering the training – but it creates a much more robust framework within which they can do that. It works through judicial systems – but makes sure those systems work.

Putting a requirement for training in law means that we can give shape, meaning and coherence to commitments to improved training for judges. We can ensure scrutiny – the best way to guarantee rigour and effectiveness. And we can guarantee that this is a commitment which gets the resources it needs, and that outlasts individual ministers or funding cycles.

By specifying some of the ground that training must cover, we can ensure that it gives judges and magistrates a thorough grounding in all the different ways domestic abuse can influence a court case, all the ways it should be taken into account when considering a child’s welfare.

By involving the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, as well as the Judicial College, the President of the Family Court and the Head of the Magistrates’ Association, we can ensure high quality training, informed by up-to-date evidence-based knowledge, which equips our judges and magistrates with the skills they need to wrestle with these difficult cases, and provide protection and justice to survivors of abuse.

Family cases are some of the most complex and emotionally challenging anywhere in our courts. In the great majority, judges act with wisdom and compassion. Arguing for more training should not be seen as an attack on them.

Greater understanding of domestic abuse among the judiciary should even save time and resources in the courts, with vexatious litigation spotted sooner, and judges better able to prevent abusers from bringing repeated cases as a means of controlling their victims.

My amendment is backed by the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, the National and London Victims’ Commissioners, and lawyers and experts from the family court system and the domestic abuse sector. It is backed by the many survivors who tell me how important training is.

One survivor who contacted me recently described how she was not seen as a victim of domestic abuse, because there were no broken bones, no scars, and because was perceived as a “strong and capable woman”. But we know domestic abuse takes many more forms than just the most visible manifestations of violence. It is no good changing our legislation to reflect that if we do not change practice in the courts as well. That requires training – and that training needs to be embedded in law.

We are almost there. My amendment passed in the House of Lords with support from peers of all parties, but it is now returning to the House of Commons. MPs should listen to the stories which I’m sure they hear from survivors. They should listen to experts from the domestic abuse sector. And I hope they will seize the moment to create a court system which works for victims and survivors, not for their abusers.

Matthew Barber: After clearing the court backlog, we need to reform the criminal justice system

19 Mar

Matthew Barber is the Conservative candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner for the Thames Valley. He is currently the Deputy PCC for that area.

Coronavirus has exposed many of the fragilities of the criminal justice system, but the challenges of delivering justice run much deeper.

In recent months, the backload that has emerged as a result of court closures due to lockdown has created stark headlines. More importantly, though, it has thrown fresh light on the fact that even before the pandemic the delays in getting cases to court could be significant.

In the world of criminal justice, it is no good to simply return to “pre-covid” levels of provision; we need to vastly improve on the situation. In the words of Gladstone, justice delayed is justice denied and that is true for all parties, both victims and the accused.

Policing often gets the attention when discussing crime, because the men and women in uniform are literally on the front line of preventing crime and tackling criminals. The arrest however is just the tip of the iceberg and we often neglect the work in investigation, prosecution, and ultimately punishment and rehabilitation. If we want to reduce crime, and improve the protection of victims, we need to ensure that the whole system is working effectively and seamlessly.

The separation between the police and the judicial parts of the process are absolutely appropriate and must be preserved, but whilst the decision-making at each stage needs to be independent, the system needs to be connected. Police and Crime Commissioners are ideally placed to bring about the change that is needed.

In Thames Valley, I chair the Local Criminal Justice Board. These exist in each region and provide the link between all of the agencies involved in delivering justice: the police, Crown Prosecution Service, prison governors, probation, the courts service, victims services, and representatives of the judiciary and defence counsel. Although this body has no formal power, the strong relationships built round this table – these days a virtual table – can deliver real change, both large and small.

It is fair to say that the goodwill and desire to collaborate that we have nurtured in Thames Valley does not seem to be repeated across the whole country. I hear some horror stories of different agencies seemingly working against each other rather than cooperating. That is certainly not the case here. Some of the achievements may seem incredibly small, such as ironing out problems with paperwork between agencies so that prisons understand all of the risks relating to prisoners being transferred to them. Some are significantly larger, such as the successful rollout of video conferencing for use in courts. Coronavirus has unsurprisingly accelerated the use of such technology but it was already embedded and saving police officer time well before the pandemic struck.

We need a whole system approach to deal with criminality from arrest through to reform.

In May 2019, Thames Valley Police launched a programme called Endeavour (an obvious connection with Morse from his old Force) to improve the quality of investigations. With a national shortage of detectives, and a focus on response, the often slow and sometimes unrewarding work of investigations can easily be undervalued. Of course, a large part of policing should be about prevention, but inevitably some crimes will still take place, and the response to these incidents, to find the truth, to hold those responsible to account, really matters. A great deal of police work overlaps with that of other agencies, but one thing only the police are equipped to do is to investigate crime and bring criminals in front of the courts.

Much of the Endeavour programme is about getting the basics right, but also about embracing new technology and dealing with current challenges such as disclosure. Over thirteen workstreams, officers are trained and supported to ensure that investigations are of a higher standard, that they more regularly meet the thresholds for prosecution, and that victims are kept informed of progress. There is still much work to do, particularly on liaison with victims of crime, but it is clear that these efforts are paying off. From April to December last year “positive outcomes” – that’s the jargon for detections – increased by 25.7% across all types of crimes. Serious offences have always been well investigated but this improvement shows a change in the way the bulk of offences are dealt with. It is a trend that must continue.

Progress through the courts is benefitting from new technology. The judiciary, who rightly guard their independence carefully, have engaged with other agencies to ensure that there are more opportunities for victims, witnesses, and police officers to give evidence remotely. Even before coronavirus, the new video suite at HMP Bullingdon reduced the need to transport prisoners to court and therefore reduced delays and costs to the system. One of the biggest frustrations for the public is the issue of sentencing. It is one area where judges have a surprisingly small amount of flexibility. It is an issue for Parliament to resolve, but more clarity about the sentence that will actually be served is essential and part of the solution can be the use of electronic tagging and monitoring to be used as part of a sentence.

Once the jury have delivered their verdict, and a sentence has been handed down, the prison and probation service is by far the most neglected part of the process. Prison should be a place of punishment, but that does not prevent it from also being the start of the process of rehabilitation. We all know that reoffending rates are far too high, and giving people a fresh start in life after prison with the education, treatment and support they need, doesn’t simply help them as individuals, but prevents more people from becoming victims of crime in the future.

Following successful trials, the National Probation Service are about to begin expanding the range of electronic monitoring available, including sobriety tags that can monitor an individual’s consumption of alcohol. These new options can make a massive difference when it comes to ensuring compliance with license terms when someone first leaves prison, and just as importantly it can be an important building block for ex-offenders to find work and a stable home.

In Thames Valley, the Police and Crime Commissioner works closely with several prisons and charitable organisations to provide support for those leaving prison with the aim of reducing reoffending. At the end of 2020 we hosted a virtual conference on the subject that brought together employers who were able to offer opportunities to those leaving prison. Now in 2021 the PCC is leading a bid across Thames Valley to improve provision for prison leavers. The more people who can find a job and a place to live when they return to the community, the more people we can stop from committing crime in the future.

Whilst the focus at the moment is understandably on the backlog in court cases caused by coronavirus there is so much more to do. In Thames Valley the courts are largely up and running as normal, with COVID-secure practices in place, but this is no time for complacency. We must take the opportunity that increased attention on criminal justice gives, in order to improve the entire system from the moment of arrest right through to release and reform.