Harriet Harman

Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham. Mother of the House of Commons.

Preventing Domestic Murder

ACPO Domestic Violence Conference
The Renaissance Hotel Solihull

Tuesday 22nd October 2002


The Legal Secretariat to the Law Officers

Attorney General’s Chambers

9 Buckingham Gate



Tel: 020 7271 2400

E-mail: [email protected]


I’m happy to be able to stand in for John Denham who very much regrets that he cannot be with you today.


It gives me the opportunity to

·        Tell you of the renewed commitment there is in government to back up your efforts to tackle this crime and

·        Pay tribute to all the work that you already have underway

·        Tell you of about, and seek your views on, some of the work which is underway in government


I’m glad to be able to tell you that there is a strong commitment in government to take forward work on tackling domestic violence.


John Denham chairs a ministerial committee, set up last year, which includes the health minister, Hazel Blears, Cabinet Office Minister Barbara Roche, as well as Rosie Winterton from the Lord Chancellor’s Department and myself as Solicitor General.


The work of this committee has strong support from both the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary who are concerned that we should make substantial progress – working together across government and with you in the Criminal Justice System.


We want, through our actions in government, to back up the work that you already have underway.


The reasons government is concerned about domestic violence are these:


·        We have made clear our commitment to tackle crimes of violence.  We simply cannot live up to that commitment unless we tackle domestic violence because it is a quarter of all violent crime.


·        We have made clear our commitment to support children and families.  We simply cannot live up to that commitment unless we tackle domestic violence because children are always harmed by domestic violence.  Often physically harmed, always emotionally damaged.


·        We have made clear our commitment to women’s equality. Domestic violence is a crime which is a throw-back to when men expected to be the boss and were entitled to control their wives and entitled to assault them.  We must put those days behind us.  It is disgrace that in 21st Century Britain the magistrates courts and Crown Courts are full of men who have blacked their wives eyes and broken their ribs and that the police are called out to many more who never get to court.


Domestic violence has got a higher priority in government now, but I know that it has long been a priority for all of you here.


It is very much to ACPO’s credit that you have organized this conference and brought everyone here today.  I have had the opportunity already to meet Jim Gamble and know that he will bring great commitment to this work and build on the progress that Maria Wallace made in the many years she chaired the ACPO domestic violence committee.  Maria’s not here today, as she’s now Cornwall’s Chief Constable, but I’m sure that she will take forward work on domestic violence in her own force and continue to encourage work at national level.


I know that you’ll be hearing about good practice that has been developed in the police.  And Nadine Tilbury of the CPS will be telling you about the work that she leads in the CPS with the new guidance and the new network of committed domestic violence prosecutors.


As Solicitor General, my role includes superintending the Crown Prosecution Service and so I have met all of the domestic violence prosecutors and I cannot speak too highly of their work.  They are professional and dedicated and every day they have to make extraordinarily difficult decisions.


The decision of whether or not to drop a case when the woman says she will not support the prosecution is very difficult.  It is not just the issue of whether there will be enough evidence without her, it’s about where the public interest lies when the victim is insisting the case be dropped.  Prosecutors are right to remember always that the woman’s safety is paramount, but they of course are considering a public, not a private prosecution.  She might want to forgive him, but the next time he assaults her she could be killed Even if she has left him and wants just to move on in her life and put it all behind her, he is likely, unchecked, to just go on to assault his next partner and she might end up dead.


It seems to me to be important that we do two things

·        Give a great deal more support to victims of domestic violence as they go through the criminal justice system and

·        Make it clear that the assault they have suffered is a crime and as such is not a private matter just for themselves and their children.  It’s a matter for all of us and it must be stopped.

·        Make it clear to men that if you assault your wife or girlfriend you are a criminal.  There are many men who though they assault their wives do not consider themselves criminal – they are not like that.  They have good jobs and command respect.  But if you commit assault at home you are every bit as much a criminal as someone who assaults a stranger in the street.


We want to make sure that we do everything we can to ensure that the criminal justice system is doing all it can to play its part in preventing and prosecuting this crime.


We have already set out in the White Paper, “Justice for All” that was published in July, four legal changes which we want your views on.  But I’m sure that there is more that we can do by way of legislation and I hope then that we will be able to have a bill.  If that is the case, it will be the first bill since Jo Richardson’s Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act 1976.


I just want to briefly outline the white paper domestic violence proposals

·        A legal requirement to have a multi-agency review after every domestic violence homocide.  If he kills himself as well as her there’s an inquest.  If he doesn’t kill himself there’s a criminal trial.  But we need to do more.  We need to learn the lessons from every domestic violence homocide.  We know that it is rarely the first time he’s attacked her.  We need to understand better how to evaluate risk, to know the danger signs.  Murder reviews can help identify risk, help point to necessary public policy changes and help the local agencies work together to learn lessons. The Metropolitan Police have already done excellent work pilotting such reviews  - and you will be hearing more from Andre Baker later today -  and the Crown Prosecution Service outside London have led a number. They are clearly invaluable.  But there are many points of detail to be worked out.  Not least, who should be the lead agency.

·        Making breach of a non-molestation order a criminal offence.  We need to get the criminal and civil jurisdictions to work more closely together. In Nothern Ireland they prosecute for breaches of non-molestation order.  That enables the Criminal Justice System to intervene – it’s not just left to her, though she can still ask the civil court to commit him for breach of their order.  It strikes me as odd when the civil courts treat a man as of good character even though he might have committed numerous breaches of non-molestation orders

·        Giving the courts power to impose a restraining order as part of their sentence.  Many women dare not support the prosecution because if he gets a non-custodial sentence they’ll be in even more danger.  And even if he’s sent to prison, when he gets out he can come straight round and threaten to kill her.  The power to impose a restraining order, such as is available under the Protection from Harrasment Act, might suit domestic violence.  And it might give women new incentive to support a prosecution which could – like a bail condition – keep them away from her and out of their home.

·        The final White Paper proposal is anonymity for the victim.  This is a proposal which is all about getting the victim to be prepared to report the crime and be prepared to support the prosecution.  The reason victims of sexual offences have anonymity is because otherwise many women simply would not bring the crime to the criminal justice system.  And it seems to me very much the same for domestic violence.  It is, by definition, a crime which happens within a relationship, often within the home.  It exposes the most intimate details and violates the privacy of not only the woman but also her children.  So I think we need anonymity for victims.  Both Nadine and the Bar Council have suggested we could do this by implementing s 49 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act whereby there would not automatically be anonymity but it could be available on application.


We’d very much value your views on each of these four proposals and any other suggestions you have for legislation which help you in your efforts to tackle domestic violence.


Before I conclude, I’d like briefly to touch on one further issue.


And you may also be aware that the Attorney General, Peter Goldsmith, and I have a power to refer a sentence to the Court of Appeal if we regard it as unduly lenient.  What happens is that within 28 days we can make a reference which sets out the agreed facts in the case and explains why we think the sentence should have been greater.  We only use this power in exceptional circumstances but that we will refer unduly lenient sentences on domestic violence when it is appropriate.  This in not about criticizing or second guessing the judge at first instance, it simply gives the Court of appeal the chance to increase the sentence if they think that it is in the public interest for that offence, and others like it, to be treated more seriously.  We know that sentencing is an issue in domestic violence.  It takes a huge amount for a woman to support a prosecution – it is nearly always an ordeal, often for her children as well as for herself.  The sentence must match the seriousness of the crime.  That is why, earlier this year, I referred to the Court of Appeal the case of a man who’d broken his wife’s ribs, punctured her lungs and blacked her eyes.  He had been given a non-custodial sentence, having argued in mitigation that he was a well-respected professional who was depressed as his wife planned to leave him.  The Court of Appeal increased his sentence and he was sent to prison.


I conclude by saying that I am optimistic that if we all work together we can make substantial progress.  Most of those who commit domestic violence don’t really see it as a crime.  We need to make it clear that it is, that it will be prosecuted.  We need a culture change which ends the excuses and ensures that women can live in their own homes free of fear. I am sure we can achieve that.

The Labour Party will place cookies on your computer to help us make this website better.

Please read this to review the updates about which cookies we use and what information we collect on our site.

To find out more about these cookies, see our privacy notice. Use of this site confirms your acceptance of these cookies.