Sisters Uncut

Taking direct action for domestic violence services.

The criminal justice system perpetuates violence: we need a better solution

Friday, January 12, 2018

CN: Serial murder, domestic abuse, misogyny

Recent media coverage of the murders of two women highlights the failure of the criminal justice system to protect domestic violence survivors.

Last week in London the killer of Angela Best, her former partner Theodore Johnson, was  imprisoned for 26 years. The Old Bailey heard that Angela was the third woman to be killed by Johnson, who pushed his wife off a ninth-floor balcony in 1981 and strangled a former partner in 1993, for which he served two manslaughter sentences.

Johnson was sent to a secure mental hospital after his second conviction, but was released on the condition he alerted authorities to any relationship he entered with a woman. He failed to do this, keeping his relationship with Angela secret.

Reports of an IOPC investigation taking place this week tell how 120 miles away in Dorset, Katrina O’Hara was murdered by Stuart Thomas, just days after reporting him to police for domestic abuse.

The investigation into Dorset Police found the force had “failed to take appropriate action in a timely manner” when Katrina had contacted them about Thomas’s behaviour.

Katrina was at first considered to be the perpetrator in the situation, due to Thomas’s reports against her. In its domestic homicide review, the Dorset Community Safety Partnership describe how Thomas successfully “manipulated the police,” shifting the blame from himself to Katrina.

Eventually police began to investigate her claims of domestic violence. In the days before her death, they seized Katrina’s phone as part of their inquiry, leaving her with no means of calling for help.

As these cases show, the police and the wider criminal justice system routinely mishandle serious cases of domestic abuse, often putting survivors at increased risk and, in the cases of these two women, directly contributing to their murders.

Theresa May’s draft Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill, currently under consultation and due to go through parliament in the Spring, has been touted by the Conservatives as a transformative way to tackle gendered violence.

However, it is mostly made up of tweaks to the criminal justice system, such as longer sentences for those convicted of domestic violence against children. This fails to support the vast majority of survivors (5 in 6 according to a Women’s Aid sample) who are reluctant to pursue criminal proceedings, due to fear or lack of faith in the system.

Sisters Uncut are also concerned that the law changes will make little difference, as the majority of police forces in England and Wales have still not begun implementing May’s 2015 “coercive control” laws, which made controlling behaviour a criminal offence.

Theresa May’s action on domestic violence seems solely focused on adding more laws and responsibilities to a system that can’t cope with the ones it’s got. It also increases the powers of sexist and racist police, which we believe will only further the criminalisation of survivors.

The workers on the frontline of domestic violence services know what survivors need most – safe places to go and access to advice and specialist services that truly understand their plight.

Yet the domestic violence sector has been decimated by a process of continual government cuts, started by the Coalition government in 2010. Since then, refuge budgets have been slashed by almost a quarter, resulting in 1,000 women and children being turned away over a six-month period, according to The Bureau for Investigative Journalism.

The Tories showed they intend to take the destruction of the safety net even further, with plans which will stop refuges getting vital housing benefit funding exposed by The Guardian in November 2017.

No amount of tweaks to the criminal justice system will restore the vital funding lost and meet increasing demand for lifesaving services.

May’s announcement of additional funding to tackle domestic violence through the new Bill merely represents a temporary cash injection.

Only a secure, protected and long-term refuge funding plan, plus substantial funding for other social services and housing, will keep survivors safe.

Survivors deserve access to support services that understand DV and should not be left with sexist, racist and incompetent police forces as their only option.

Sisters Uncut demands fully-funded, specialised services for all survivors of domestic abuse, a supportive benefit system, substantial social housing and an end to racist immigration systems that trap survivors in violent situations.

The tragic and preventable deaths of Angela Best and Katrina O’Hara show that the criminal justice system is failing to deal with domestic violence. If Theresa May is serious about tackling the issue, she must be committed to coming up with a trauma-informed and survivor-led solution.