HC Deb 12 February 2004 vol 417 cc1564-6
23. Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC)

How many representations she has received during the past 12 months on the approach taken by Crown prosecutors in cases involving women subjected to domestic violence. [154532]

The Solicitor-General (Ms Harriet Harman)

I answered oral questions in March and May 2003 on policy in relation to domestic violence cases. I have also answered a number of written questions and received numerous representations from voluntary organisations and members of the public. I am afraid that I have not counted them—I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not ask me to do so.

Mr. Llwyd

I have no intention of asking the Solicitor-General to count them. The subject remains very important, as two women are killed each week. To be fair to the Government, they have introduced numerous useful reforms, yet Home Office figures show that in July 2002 domestic violence was, unfortunately, up by 22 per cent. Is any monitoring under way to look at the numbers of cases that fail, are discontinued or result in conviction, and whether the penalties are appropriate to the crime?

The Solicitor-General

On penalties, the Attorney-General and I can refer to the Court of Appeal unduly lenient sentences if the case has taken place in the Crown court. Such cases go to the Court of Appeal and the response can then form guidelines that are effective in the magistrates courts as well as the Crown courts. That meets the point about sentencing, but, in addition, the Home Secretary has asked the Sentencing Advisory Panel to review sentencing across the board in domestic violence cases. The panel will report in a matter of months, so we shall be able to see whether we have got the guidelines right.

On the number of cases that fail, once a domestic violence case gets to court—whether the magistrates court or the Crown court—generally speaking, it is more likely to succeed than not. The difficulty is in actually getting such cases to court, because victims can he terrorised or pressurised to drop the case. The hon. Gentleman is right; we need to keep a close eye on cases that fall by the wayside before they get to court. My noble Friend, Baroness Scotland, the Minister for Criminal Justice System and Law Reform, leads an interministerial committee, which is examining a number of indicators so that we can report more clearly to the House whether we are succeeding in tackling domestic violence.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth) (Lab)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that a disturbingly low proportion of those who perpetrate domestic violence are brought to court? What guidance is she giving the Crown Prosecution Service so that it can increase the proportion of those who are brought to justice?

The Solicitor-General

The first point is that we want to prevent domestic violence from taking place, which involves getting across to women very clearly the message that they should not have to put up with violence as part of their relationship; and to men that, if they are violent, they should not get away with it. The next step involves the police, the prosecution services and all the other agencies working closely together so that, as soon as there is a case of domestic violence, they all operate together to ensure that the offender is brought to justice.

There also needs to be plenty of support for victims to enable to them to get to court. As a result of one measure that will be brought into effect in April, victims will be given anonymity on application to the court. If they are not prepared to come forward unless their names are kept private, the prosecutors will be able to apply to the court to say, "In this case, please can we have reporting restrictions?" That is another new measure, designed to try to ensure that prosecutions go forward and that those who perpetrate domestic violence are brought to justice.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con)

I noted what the Solicitor-General said in relation to the majority of domestic violence cases that actually get to trial succeeding—of course, we all wish to see that happen—but does she agree that it is very important that, in any system to deal with domestic violence or any other crime, there should be a sense of fairness in the procedure? She will be aware that there is a principle in the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill to apply for restraining orders on acquittal. Does she agree that, if those restraining orders were to be granted on anything other than the higher, civil burden of proof. it would be seen as a way of getting round an acquittal and would bring the entire process into disrepute?

The Solicitor-General

The restraining orders are not a way of getting round an acquittal; they are a way of getting around a problem: there may be an acquittal in the criminal court, but there is still a need for protection—the equivalent of an injunction, a non- molestation order. Currently, the person involved has to go across town to another court to apply for an injunction, where the balance of probabilities is the standard of proof. Instead of making them go across town to another court, we ask, "Surely the criminal court could swap hats, become more like a civil jurisdiction and issue the equivalent of a non-molestation order?" That is proposed in the Bill, but I have described those orders as stay-away orders, generically, because it is not a question of the criminal court operating according to lower standards, but of that court operating more like a one-stop shop, so that a woman does not have to go from pillar to post and the court can deliver the necessary orders for her protection.

Back to