LOVE IS BLIND

I read a suggestion the other day from the Association of Chief Police Officers (P.L.O.D) concerning men who have a history of violence towards their partners. They support a Register, similar to the Sex Offenders Register, listing the details and current whereabouts of those convicted of domestic violence, and who are, by inference, likely to reoffend.

This proposal has been around for some time. It was last kicked into the long grass back in 2003, when some twerp in the Home Office with nothing better to do, produced a consultation document to this effect. It went down like a lead balloon, and until PLOD breathed new life into it, everybody thought it was dead and buried.

Love is a strange emotion, bringing together the most unlikely partners, and according to statistics, around 60% of partners stick it out through thick and thin, for richer for poorer and all that.

Domestic violence is all too real, not just for battered women, but for PLOD, the prosecuting authorities and the courts. In its extreme form, the violence is almost unimaginable, and often committed in front of children. All too often, the violent man suffers from a pathological disorder, which accounts for unexplained mood swings, and once the dark mood passes, he is full of remorse.

Then again, there are a few, hopelessly inadequate in all walks of life, who take a perverse and sadistic pleasure in inflicting pain on defenceless women, and for whom little or nothing can be said in mitigation.

But the real problem is not the fact that some men are given to violence, it’s the emotion that cannot be stripped from the equation. Time and again, even after severe beatings, the violent man begs his victim to forgive him and take him back, and time and again, she does so, knowing she shouldn’t, but hoping against hope that he will reform, and that this time, he means it.

So what is to be done? A Register is not the way forward. It may help, so I don’t dismiss the idea out of hand, but it’s not the solution. The solution is all about squaring the circle, which is remarkably unhelpful. First, there must be much more support for battered women, and not just a night or two in a Women’s Refuge. A battered woman should be treated from the outset as a victim of crime, with the police being informed as soon as she walks through the door. They, in turn, must give the case the same priority as they should over any allegation of violence, which must rule out a caution or other labour saving and utterly useless device. There already exists a plethora of legal sanctions to keep the offender away from his battered partner, on pain of imprisonment regardless of conviction, and these must be used to full effect.

But above all, the Crown Prosecution Service must be more supportive and proactive. They should know that between arrest and trial, the battered partner is likely to retract her complaint, either because she wants him back, or, more likely, she fears the consequences of giving evidence. After all, he knows where she lives.

The Social Services and the local authority must also put their collective shoulders to the wheel. The battered woman needs emotional as well as physical support to rebuild her life, and not simply expressions of condolence.

The CPS must take the lead in prosecuting the offender, even where the battered woman is a reluctant witness. They too have powers, not just to compel her to attend trial with a witness summons, but screens or a video link to allow her to give her evidence in the least stressful circumstances.

All this costs money, and it’s easy to throw in the towel with a reluctant witness. After all, if the battered woman can’t be bothered to turn up for trial, or having turned up, departs from the script, why bother?

We should bother because it’s our duty to protect the vulnerable, the more so where children are involved. After all, Pontius Pilate washed his hands, and look where it got him.

MURDER MOST FOUL

The government’s latest White Paper, concentrating as it does on women killing violent men, and the possible defences open to them, is an unnecessary distraction, ill conceived and simply complicates an already messy approach to this, the most serious crime on the statute books.

In 1965, the death penalty for murder was abolished, and as a sop to the “hang ‘em high” lobby, a mandatory life sentence was substituted, and it has remained ever thus. In addition, the sentencing judge is obliged to indicate the minimum term [known as the tariff] to be served before the offender can be considered for parole, or in some extreme cases, life without parole.

It is argued that in setting this minimum term, the sentencing judge can reflect the gravity of the offence, and introduce some degree of flexibility that is otherwise denied him.

This is all fine and dandy if it were not for the hoops which the convicted murderer must jump through when he applies for parole. It is not just the Parole Board that needs to be convinced, it is also the Secretary of State for Justice, whose input into the Board’s deliberations and findings can be crucial, and at times positively meddlesome. [See my earlier article The Independence of the Parole Board]

I don’t know if these sentencing judges are kept informed of the sentences actually served, I doubt it, and indeed, why would they? And does anybody check the time spent in custody against the recommended tariff? Certainly not the editor of the Daily Mail!

One example amongst many will suffice from my own professional experience, when I represented a convicted murderer before the Parole Board. He had murdered his landlady when in his late teens. There was nothing exceptional about the crime to attract maximum publicity. With his mandatory sentence of life imprisonment came a recommended tariff of twelve years. When I represented him, he had served thirty eight years, his entire adult life behind bars. It follows, as night the day, that the ‘tariff’ system doesn’t work.

But whilst sentencing judges are shackled with the absurdity of a mandatory life sentence, these injustices will remain.

The mandatory life sentence for murder should be abolished, with judges free to make the punishment fit the crime. This means determinate sentences should be available. In the most heinous cases, a life sentence will be appropriate, and sometimes without parole, but there should be a sliding scale, and not, as at present, one set in stone.

But I would go further. I would introduce the American system of murder by degrees, again to reflect the gravity of the act, together with the appropriate ‘tariff’. The French, que Dieu les bênisse, have crimes of passion, ideally suited to the wronged female, or male, as the case may be.

In this way, the punishment can indeed be made to fit the crime, and with greater flexibility comes greater fairness. The tariff will not be routinely ignored, and a measure of certainty for the serving prisoner will enter the equation.

By all means leave the offences of murder and manslaughter as they are, they seem to work well enough, offering as they do some limited scope for the endangered female. But the government’s approach is likely to do more harm than good, and is a recipe for confusion and worse still, real miscarriages of justice. For the average juror, the criminal process is complicated enough, without complicating it further.