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Domestic Violence Awareness Month: Prosecutors face 'unique challenges' in bringing offenders to justice

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To mark Domestic Violence Awareness month, the Croydon Advertiser is focusing on how abuse in the home is affecting people in Croydon, through a series of features on the subject. This week, Tom Matthews looks at how the courts deal with the issue...

AN APPEARANCE in court can be intimidating for anyone, but the experience is often far tougher for those who have suffered at the hands of a loved one.

While the evidence of domestic violence victims is normally the keystone for a successful prosecution, they are often reluctant to testify due to the emotional strain of facing their abuser or because of the relationship itself, something not normally present between defendant and victim.

According to Baljit Ubhey, chief crown prosecutor for London, domestic cases present "unique challenges" for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

"Because it often takes place in the home, what that can mean is victims may not continue to support prosecutions because of the relationship."

Prosecutors can decide to go ahead with a case, even against the will of the victim, who may be summonsed to court and forced to give evidence.

"When people withdraw there may be many reasons why they do and we won't always know the truth of it," said Ms Ubhey.

"Victims may do it because they genuinely do not want the suspect to be prosecuted because of their relationship, or it may be that they have been intimidated by the defendant, and forced to make a retraction."

Asked whether it was ethically right that prosecutors might seek to force victims to testify in these cases, Ms Ubhey said the CPS was bound to consider the public interest, as well as the views of the victim.

She said: "In certain circumstances it can be right. We have to look at each individual situation. Often what happens is if you don't deal with it, things escalate. It's rare that when a victim rings the police for assistance that's the first time there's been a problem.

"If you don't address that, it allows people to think [domestic violence] is okay and it's not. If you went down to the pub and someone punched you or slapped you, that would not be okay, so why should it be okay for that to happen in someone's home environment?

"We have to pay regard to the views of victims, but we also have to look at the wider picture. How many of our murder cases are murders that take place in a domestic setting?

"Far too many. That's as a result of the escalation of violence.

"If you want to tackle domestic violence, and prosecution is only a narrow dimension in that overall, in some cases a strong prosecution can send a strong message to people about how they behave behind closed doors and I think that is very important."

Police figures show the number of domestic crimes has risen sharply over the last 12 months with 3,095 incidents reported in Croydon, a rise of 23 per cent on the year before.

According to Ms Ubhey, that rise is reflected in the number of cases reaching court.

"What's significant is that quite a proportion of our contested work trials, are domestic violence cases. We're seeing the trend of more cases coming through and as well as that, most people don't plead guilty when it comes to domestic violence so often there is a trial."

In Croydon, and London as a whole, around 69 per cent of cases coming to the courts result in a conviction, which is around five per cent lower than the national average.

Ms Ubhey said London and other major cities face "unique challenges" in prosecuting in such cases.

"We do have a very high rate of people pleading not guilty and the demographics of London and Croydon mean that we're more likely to have a transient population, so keeping in touch with victims and getting them to court can be more of a challenge.

"And there's the fact that we have such a diversity of people, it's more of a challenge to make sure we have the right support services for a wide variety of people."

Croydon borough commander Andy Tarrant has pointed to the introduction of police being equipped with video cameras as having the potential to help the prosecution in domestic cases.

The cameras were given to a small number of units in the borough as part of a Metropolitan Police pilot scheme in August, but if successful, will be made available to all officers.

Ms Ubhey agrees the devices have the potential to secure more convictions in domestic cases.

She said: "If we could have that evidence at a really early stage, then it will enable us to have more prosecutions, possibly without the victims present. Potentially it may lead to even more guilty pleas.

"We welcome the initiative and having that real time evidence of what occurred in the aftermath of the incident can be really useful. Some people have said that when 999 calls are played in court that can have quite a chilling effect, video could be similar to help us in the future."

Domestic Violence Awareness Month: Prosecutors face 'unique challenges' in bringing offenders to justice


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