Opening Closed Doors...

Dr Steve Connor, the Chief Executive of the National Centre for Domestic Violence, explains why he set up the charity. His work as a McKenzie friend has fired his interest in a career at the Bar

By the time I begin what I hope will be a practice at the Bar, I will have completed nearly seven years as an advocate. It began in 2002, when I became aware that thousands of people who leave abusive relationships find the door to legal protection closed. I witnessed this first-hand when a friend failed to secure legal assistance for obtaining a civil injunction. This led me to found what is now the National Centre for Domestic Violence (“NCDV”), a specialist charity offering a free emergency injunction service.


Violence behind closed doors …

Domestic abuse is the largest category of violent crime in the UK, affecting one in four women and one in six men during their lifetime. Criminal law struggles to provide effective redress on the scale required. It expects, as it should, robust evidence and due process, which can be a lengthy period. Despite clear guidance by the Crown Prosecution Service (“CPS”) and Association of Chief Police Officers (“ACPO”), the ability to arrest or charge may be severely hampered where there is a lack of evidence (unlike most violent crimes which are likely to have independent witnesses or perhaps CCTV footage). This problem is exacerbated where victims do not wish to support the prosecution, whether through fear, lack of confidence in the criminal justice system or a myriad of other reasons. In the Women’s Aid report “Action Plan for Tackling Violence 2008-11” it was stated that only 3.6 per cent of all reported domestic violence incidents end in conviction. Widespread resistance to the criminalisation of family members and loved-ones is, not unsurprisingly, seen daily by front-line police officers. However, over 35 incidents on average occur before the first 999 call (Jaffe, 1982). This is why many victims—including my friend—are advised to seek a civil law remedy.

Injunctions obtained through the civil law system should pose fewer difficulties. For example, a non-molestation order (Pt IV of Family Law Act 1996) can: (i) be granted on satisfying a considerably lower burden of proof than criminal law requires; (ii) be granted without notice on the same day as a violent incident; and (iii) allow an arrest to be made in circumstances which the criminal law would rarely allow (for example a text message to the complainant that is not explicitly threatening). The fact that there are criminal sanctions in case of a breach can be incentive enough.


Falling through the net

Despite the claim by the Legal Services Commission (“LSC”) that everyone suffering abuse is eligible for public funding, the evidence is quite the reverse with the majority of agencies and solicitors complaining of the thousands of victims who fall through the net. If a victim owns their own property (usually with the violent partner), or is working (but with the violent partner controlling the finances), a victim will usually find themselves having to pay a contribution to the LSC. The contribution is sometimes as much as £5,000 which is, of course, more than if they paid privately. It is a hard fact which those outside the reach of legal aid yet unable to pay privately readily attest to.


The work of the NCDV

Police officers will direct anyone seeking an injunction to a local firm of solicitors, but many of these are confronted by two recurrent problems:

  • Firstly, those ineligible for public funding but without the means to afford private representation are left unprotected, a category swollen by the financial control many abusers exert. As well as  a victim being forced to pay their wages into the abuser’s bank account, it is not uncommon for the abuser to control the cheque books and credit cards, so that even where victims, at least on paper, have funds, they are often unable to access them at the point of crisis.
  • Secondly, even those able to secure legal representation are forced to wait several days, if not weeks, before their application can be issued at the local county court. A survey carried out in 2008 by the NCDV indicated that the average national delay was between two and three weeks.

Solicitors rarely find problems in providing an advocate to attend court, but with limited manpower the preparation of the application can cause unnecessary delays, particularly in the timescales necessitated by emergency applications. It is these two matters which the NCDV service addresses.

Anyone can contact the Centre 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to seek advice about the legal protection available. When appropriate, urgent action follows. Clients qualifying for public funding are referred to a solicitor from our panel. To those solicitors we offer an agency service in which we prepare all the necessary paperwork within several hours of the first contact, so that the application can be heard in court the same or the next day. Those clients ineligible for public funding are allocated a “McKenzie friend”—an unqualified but experienced litigant assistant—so that an injunction application can similarly be prepared and issued within 24 hours of first contact. All case workers are heavily supervised and supported to ensure a speedy, high quality service for everyone. Without any outside funding, however, the NCDV


McKenzie friend training schemes

The NCDV run training schemes throughout the UK covering all aspects of domestic violence from the psychology of abuse, through to the legal process and beyond. The training is free of charge and is run over three days full time, or six weeks part time. The final stage of training is a “hands-on” role play event. The NCDV use real judges (and sometimes real courtrooms) and real uniformed police officers. Victims are usually played by performing arts students. It is quite a high-pressured day, but it certainly provides a good insight to the stresses of making an application. For more information on the training and to see how you can get involved, visit www.ncdv.org.uk

 

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