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New sentencing guideline for domestic abuse

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new sentencing guideline, Sentencing Council, domestic abuse, Women's AidDomestic abuse is not an isolated offence, it is a repeated pattern of behaviour.

A new domestic abuse sentencing guideline has been published, giving courts up-to-date guidance that emphasises the seriousness of this kind of offending.

The guideline, published by the Sentencing Council, identifies the principles relevant to the sentencing of cases involving domestic abuse, outlines how the seriousness of offences should be assessed and highlights other factors that should be taken into account.

There is no specific crime of domestic abuse – it can be a feature of many offences, such as assault, sexual offences or harassment.

The guideline aims to ensure that the seriousness of these offences is properly taken into account when such offences are being sentenced and that sufficient thought is also given to the need to address the offender’s behaviour and prevent reoffending.

There is an offence of controlling and coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship which the Council is working on a guideline for and will be published in the summer.

But this new guideline replaces a domestic violence guideline which was published in 2006.

A great deal has changed since then in terms of societal attitudes, expert thinking and terminology. Guidance for courts was therefore in need of revision to bring it up to date.

‘Domestic abuse’ is now the term used, rather than ‘domestic violence’, to reflect that offences can involve psychological, sexual, financial or emotional abuse as well as physical violence.

And the new guideline brings a distinct change in emphasis in relation to seriousness.

The previous guideline stated that offences committed in a domestic context should be seen as no less serious than those in a non-domestic context, whereas the new guideline emphasises that the fact an offence took place in a domestic context makes it more serious.

This is because domestic abuse is rarely a one-off incident, it is likely to become increasingly frequent and more serious the longer it continues, and may result in death.

It can also lead to lasting trauma for victims and their children.

And, for the first time, the guideline also includes a reference to abuse which is perpetrated through use of technology, such as email/text, social networking sites or tracking devices fitted to a victim’s car, since these are increasingly common methods by which domestic abuse can occur.

The guideline recognises that these offences can affect people of all backgrounds and the guideline is also clear that abuse can occur between family members as well as between intimate partners.

The publication of the guideline follows a public consultation, and a number of changes were made to the guideline as a result. In particular, there is now additional guidance on restraining orders, along with new guidance on Victim Personal Statements.

In relation to restraining orders, the guideline now includes additional guidance to assist the court with a renewed focus on keeping the victim safe, particularly for those who continue or resume their relationship with the offender.

The guideline further reminds courts to take any Victim Personal Statement (VPS) into account, but that where there is no Victim Personal Statement, this is not an indication of any lack of harm to the victim.

The consultation also covered proposed new guidelines for a variety of ‘intimidatory’ offences, such as harassment, stalking, disclosing private sexual images, controlling or coercive behaviour, and threats to kill. The definitive guidelines for these offences will be published separately this summer.

Sentencing Council member Jill Gramann said: “Domestic abuse comes in many forms such as harassment, assault and sex offences.

“The increasing use of technology in offending has meant that it has also evolved in its scope and impact.

“The new guideline will ensure that courts have the information they need to deal with the great range of offending and help prevent further abuse occurring.”

“The guideline also emphasises that abuse can take place in a wide range of domestic settings and relationships, and that abuse can be psychological, sexual, financial or emotional as well as physical.”

The guideline will apply to all offenders aged 16 and older sentenced on or after 24 May 2018.

Katie Ghose, chief executive of Women’s Aid, said: “Together with survivors, we have long been calling for the sentencing for domestic abuse offences to reflect the severity of this crime.

“We are therefore pleased that the Sentencing Council has recognised that if an offence has taken place within a domestic context that this makes it more serious.

“Domestic abuse is not an isolated offence, it is a repeated pattern of controlling and abusive behaviour that has a long-lasting, devastating impact on survivors.

“In 2016, 78 women were killed by a partner or ex-partner in England and Wales, according to the Femicide Census report, a ground-breaking project between Women’s Aid and Karen Ingala Smith.

“We are also pleased that the Sentencing Council has taken on board our concerns about tackling online abuse by recognising that this form of abuse is as equally harmful as that which is perpetrated offline.

“The new guidelines are a major step forward in giving confidence to survivors that they will be listened to, believed and supported by the criminal justice system.

“We now urge the Sentencing Council to go further by monitoring how the new sentencing guidelines are being used and ensuring that they are being followed effectively.

“Only by putting a stop to lenient sentencing for domestic abuse offences, can we send out the clear message that domestic abuse is unacceptable and that perpetrators will be held accountable for the abuse.”

To read the guideline in full, click here.

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