Viewpoints: What should be done about domestic violence?

Theresa May

Home Secretary Theresa May has said she will speak to Parliament soon about how police in England and Wales can improve the way they handle domestic violence.

In a BBC interview, she said there were still too many women being abused.

She told BBC Radio 4's The World at One she had been talking to Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), which assesses the police, "about them looking into this whole question of police response".

About two women a week die from domestic violence in England and Wales, a rate which has remained fairly steady for more than a decade.

"Too many young men, and in some surveys it shows young women as well, think that some form of abuse or violence within a relationship is a norm - part of a relationship," said May.

But men are also victims of domestic abuse. There are about 5,000 domestic violence cases brought against women every year.

Experts below discuss what should be done to address the issue.

Sir Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers

Dealing with domestic violence is rightly at the top of the police agenda; having been a key topic of discussion at the most recent Chief Constable's Council.

It is clear that in the past not all victims have been provided with an excellent service, and that on occasion mistakes have been made. Domestic violence is always complex, with multiple organisations often being involved in cases. While accepting that more must be done with less, we must continue to learn lessons and always work to improve our responses to victims of domestic violence.

This cannot be done by the police alone and we must work with social services, local authorities, probation and third sector services to ensure there is a joined-up approach to dealing with those who are vulnerable to domestic violence and tackle it early to prevent it from escalating.

Our responses to domestic violence have greatly improved over the past few years, including the investment in specialist officers, training call handlers to better assess risks and building working partnerships with a multitude of organisations. This led to the number of prosecutions for domestic violence last year increasing by 15% to 52,500.

Working with government, police forces have also piloted multiple initiatives to protect victims and prevent potential victims, including the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme and Domestic Violence Prevention Orders.

Research has shown that on average it's the 35th incident of domestic abuse before a victim calls us. It is therefore vital we consider each and every first-time response not as a one-off but as a critical moment where we must be effective in an ongoing crisis.

We'd encourage anyone who is suffering at the hands of a partner to call police on 101 or 999 in an emergency.

Amanda McAlister, family law specialist at Slater & Gordon

I've been practising almost 17 years as a family lawyer.

Early on the police were totally useless, [they] didn't believe that domestic violence happens and were not particularly proactive.

But my experience now is that the police are proactive and they do act. You can get hold of [officers] very quickly if you have a client in this position.

One reason for deaths, and domestic violence generally, is what Theresa May said about it being "normal". Sometimes when a woman, or a man, is in an abusive relationship, they're used to it.

And it's only when it becomes so bad that people decide they can't actually live like this. But sometimes it's gone far too far.

It's about educating from a young age about respecting people in relationships, and that if you do things like this there are going to be severe consequences.

[Another reason] is that whilst the police are much better than they were in dealing with domestic abuse issues, it's when you come to the courts that's the problem.

If you want to get an injunction to protect somebody, so their husband or partner cannot come within "x" distance, those orders are very easy to get.

The major problem is when it comes to getting the abuser out of the house.

[I have clients] with children who leave the home because it's so unbearable. The police were helping, Women's Aid were helping, but obviously I need to get [the abuser] out of the house so I can get [the victim] back in.

[One woman's] in torrid accommodation and the court is only listing this hearing in two months' time, [even though] I write and write.

And this lady has her children crying and crying, about to start school, they want to see their dog, and sometimes it's the easy option to go back.

So it's not just about the immediate "What are the police doing?", it's about looking at housing arrangements, making sure that the person who has been put into the safekeeping thinks: "There's going to be an end to this very soon and my children are going to back in their environment."

That's where, in my view, the law needs to be changed. There are situations where the courts need to put aside the normal rules and say that it's bad to keep children in this position.

Anna Rickman, charity worker and victim of domestic abuse

I feel nervous writing about this, even though my own experience of domestic abuse means I am more qualified than most to have an opinion on this issue.

I think that this is one of the reasons why progress has yet to be made, and suggests the beginning of an answer. People are afraid to talk about it. Part of why I feel nervous writing about this is the stigma attached to domestic abuse.

Another reason is the sort of reactions women speaking out against domestic violence can be met with. "Feminist" has become a dirty word. Debates on this issue can so easily be misconstrued as an attack on men.

We ask: "Why is it that two women a week are killed by their partner?" But the issue cannot be properly addressed until we ask the complementary question: "Why is it that two men a week kill their partners?"

I can begin only to answer from my own experience - that in a domestic situation, when no-one speaks up, violence escalates. A paradox lies in that violence, although a temporary exertion of control, is in fact the most eloquent expression of its loss.

And control is what domestic abuse is all about. It was about my dad feeling a devastating necessity to hold the power. Perceived disobedience, however slight, was threatening to his sense of identity and self-worth. His father treated him the same way, I know that it was learnt.

It is going to take everyone engaging openly in this debate, as a problem that we all share, before we can expect to make any progress. Women should not feel reluctance and shame in speaking out. Men should feel that they have a rightful, central part in the debate too, without being judged for it. We can no longer afford to avoid debate just because it is too uncomfortable, too painful, too close to home.

Polly Neate, chief executive of Women's Aid, the national domestic violence charity

Domestic violence will not be stopped without a significant change in attitudes and greater investment in services. We have seen some improvements, not least in the prosecution of domestic violence cases by the CPS, but the attitudes which allow domestic violence to thrive are still deeply entrenched in society.

Myths, like the idea that "it takes two to fight" or a woman experiencing abuse "should just leave", are very widely believed. Unfortunately many of those tasked with intervening to stop domestic violence, like police officers, are also influenced by prevailing social attitudes and therefore sometimes fail to act in the most effective ways to stop violence.

Because so many domestic violence support services are constantly fighting for survival against a lack of funding, and even funding cuts, too many women are struggling to find a safe place to escape to. And when they have escaped, services based on their individual needs to help them and their children rebuild their lives are increasingly scarce.

Right now we need an end to cuts and security of funding for the services which keep women safe in emergencies. In the longer term, the attitudes towards women and relationships that underpin violence need to be challenged: through specialist training for police officers, social workers and other professionals, as well as through compulsory relationships education in schools.

Domestic violence and femicide is the far end of a spectrum of violence against women that begins with street harassment and online trolling. We won't end domestic violence until we end sexism.

Mark Brooks, chairman of the ManKind Initiative

While we welcome the broad thrust of the initiative and the concerns raised by the home secretary, on the basis of equality we still cannot understand why the focus and emphasis remains on female victims rather than all victims.

The Home Office's own figures show that one in three victims of domestic abuse are male and over 4,000 women per year are prosecuted for domestic abuse yet the government narrative continues to be on men committing domestic abuse on women.

This often unacceptably relegates men (and by extension their children) to being a footnote in the debate on domestic abuse solutions. In an age of equality, and to ensure all victims receive the support and recognition they need, irrelevant of gender or sexuality, there has to be a sea change in attitude and that comes from the top.

Any of the initiatives the home secretary is promoting, such as improved training for police officers and better education within schools, has to continually explain and recognise on equal terms that domestic abuse against men is as awful as domestic abuse against women. Only then can we say any such initiatives are successful for all victims and achieve the change we need to see.

Tina Royles, psychotherapist and former police officer

The first incident of domestic violence is often difficult to stop, however repeat incidents of domestic violence is where all agencies need to improve.

Most agencies have training already in place so that isn't the answer, and national standards will only be useful if they are mandatory, and monitoring and accountability takes place.

While agencies have discretion on how to act and deal [with domestic abuse], there will always be issues and failures. The police cannot work in isolation to combat domestic violence and we must look at the [risk assessment models in place] to ascertain whether they are assisting victims and putting appropriate safety measures in place.

Monitoring and accountability is the key, not just for the police but for all agencies involved.

Police and the majority of agencies often deal with the immediate issues of domestic violence - predominantly safety and any legal address - and therefore perhaps don't always take into account the levels of trauma and impact that domestic violence has on a victim, and find the rationale of many victims difficult to comprehend.

Why? Because domestic violence is complex and the emotional and psychological impact is immense from the incidents, memories, triggers and associations.

To begin to understand, explore, reflect and work through this impact - for a victim and all directly involved - takes time in order to heal and recover and for them to comprehend what has happened.

So you have police and other agencies wanting immediate answers and decisions from a victim and they are often not, at the time, in a position to give them.

If you, or someone you know, is suffering from domestic abuse, you can seek help and information from Women's Aid, Refuge, ManKind. If you wish to report domestic abuse, dial 999 in an emergency. Otherwise, contact numbers for the UK nations can be found on the government website.

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