Saturday, 24 April 2010

Law Lecture

There are laws in our country - and the purpose of them is protect the general public. That's a good thing. No question. One law in particular is about protection from harrassment. When laws are written sometimes they need tweaking - and over a few years (the legal system grinds slowly...very slowly)  they are tweaked and eventually we have something that is workable, and does what it says on the tin. The Protection of Harrasment Act (1997) was written to give people some immediate redress in a situation where they are GENUINELY in fear. I have been on the end of domestic violence and it's something that I feel extremely strongly about. My husband (no 2) bullied and terrorised me in my own home ...this culminated in him battering me with a heavy cast iron frying pan and causing a serious injury. At the time there was no PFH act and I had to use every tool that the law had available, and invoke every clause to assure protection for myself and my then small daughter. Luckily I had the help of a very caring solicitor who advised me and told me what to do to protect myself, and eventually my then husband was convicted of Actual Bodily Harm. To be on the end of domestic violence and to be in total , complete and utter fear of your life is not funny...not bloody funny at all. I am not ashamed to tell you that when I was laying on the floor and he was raining the blows down on me I thought I was going to be killed and I actually wet myself. Please don't ever underestimate the severity of domestic violence. It's about cowardice, control, manipluation and fear. It is awful - bloody awful...it's often silent and back in the 90's it was so very very difficult for the victim to get any help and support that was effective. At the time I was a Law student, and had a pal who was a Magistrate - and I had a brain in my head and even with all of that on my side I STILL STRUGGLED MASSIVELY TO the garner the protection that Danielle and I needed.

Times change and things progress, and now we have the PHA (1997). It's purpose as I said it to protect people. It has the much needed features which enable a victim - with the help of the police - to gain some level of protection within a very short time from somebody who is intent on causing them harm. That's a good thing. A very good thing indeed.

However - because it's a relatively new law (I know 13 years is a long time - but the legal machine really does move very slowly), and things take a long time to change......and also because for it to be effective quickly it needs to emcompass all kinds of scenarios - it is very generally written. That's good because it means that the protection it offers is available to more people in more situations. However the downside of this is that it can be abused.

This is how it works. If you want to you can make a statement to the Police about somebody harassing you, causing you distress and fear. The police then have to take action. They have to go to the other person and ask them to read and sign Part One papers. This means that they acknowledge that a complaint has been made against them. They are not allowed to see the other person's statement - or to know what it is they are supposed to have done. Effectively this means that if somebody is feeling spiteful and malevolant towards you - they can make a statement - and you will get a visit from the Bablyon. When you are asked to sign the Part One papers - you are assured that you aren't being accused of anything - you're not in any trouble - just that someone has made a complaint, and if you don't sign - they will take further action. Bit of a no brainer really. The police don't even ask you if what the other person has accused you of is true. There is no caution, no interview...nothing. It's simple, easy to use and should have immediate results. Everybody wins.

You can see how this would be a good thing - it's a warning shot across your bow. 'Look Mr Bully - your Missus has complained that you've been a bit of a twat with your fists and your gob after a few sherberts and we just want you to know that we know about it and we're onto you and if you do it again you'll be in some serious shite'. Might possible cause Mr Bully to not batter Mrs Bully again, and make him think twice. Saves the NHS a fortune and the Police don't have to wait forever to be able to protect Mrs Bully in the future. Mr and Mrs Bully might even work it all out, live happily ever after...not become another statistic and save the council a fortune on housing benefits...it's cheaper for two people to be claiming rent on one house than on two - you see everybody wins. All makes perfect sense to me. The CPS won't run up a huge bill trying to prosecute Mr Bully, and then have to drop the case because Mrs Bully realises that she loves him after all and forgives him and retracts her statement. Please don't laugh at this because the facts are that a woman has to be seriously hurt by her partner SEVEN times before she will finally take action against him. The police and the Courts are well aware of this - the costs and time involved are extensive and quite frankly they get fed up of trying to protect women who are stuck in some kind of (understandable) victim cycle. The psychology of domestic abuse is extremely complicated. Do some reading about it...it's a massively interesting subject with many angles and issues.

The PHA was written with genuine victims in mind, and with a view to prevent drastic situations becoming more drastic. There is also another angle - which is the serious matter of stalking. We all remember Jill Dando - and there is nothing funny about stalkers and sick people preying upon and causing genuine fear and distress. People who do that kind of thing are ill and need help - but their 'victims' need protection - however I'm not entirely sure how effective the PHA act is in that sphere. I don't think it would really have helped Jill Dando? do you? If a nutter is going to kill you - getting them to sign a piece of paper two weeks before hand probably isn't going to work......? Perhaps there's an element in there too of 'Crime clear up rates' to be considered. The police just have to have a chat with someone, get them to sign their little form, and they get another tick in their box...perhaps I'm being cynical. Issue dealt with...job done...now let's go and get a cup of tea.

The point is that all laws are open to abuse, especially newer pieces of legislation that are loosely written. You have to balance the effectiveness in terms of the protection it affords to those genuinely in need against the worry of the law being abused. In time the legislation will be tightened up and it will be better at doing exactly what it was originally written for - which is to provide protection for people who are genuinely at risk. GENUINELY - AT - RISK. Meanwhile we wait - and hope that most people understand all that is outlined above. We hope that most people would never abuse a piece of legislation in any kind of way. We hope that most people would never be so selfish, and stupid and short sighted as to take up resources, waste police time and try to use this act to cause a hassle or inconvenience to another person, over something trivial and banal -  (can I have my Carpet cleaner back please?) Because if that happens - what the result will be is this ......the Act will be (in time) altered. It will be changed to give less protection to those who need it. It will no longer be a workable fast solution for those of us who have at some point in the past - or in the future - desperately need some protection.

How dare anybody abuse this law? How dare anybody take away resources from people who genuinely need them? Every time you call the police or have them visit you in your comfortable home counties detached stone house...over some imagined and ridiculous affront to your over inflated ridiculous middle-aged ego....you are stealing those resources that are intended for Cathy, or Sue, or Dawn or any of the one hundred women who are killed...(oh actually let's not use the word 'killed'..let's say it as it really is...'Murdered')... each and every year in this country by their partners in a domestic violence situation. What if that were your daughter - would you be feeling quite so smug and self satisfied now?...and make no mistake about it - it could easily be your daughter - because domestic violence knows no class distinctions or boundaries - it happens in council flats and it happens just the same in mansions.  Imagine how you would feel if there was no officer available to go and protect your daughter when her husband is smacking the crap out of her because they're too busy taking a statement from somebody who has over-exaggerated some kind of concocted over imagined and vastly inflated tale of woe? I think you might just be a tiny bit pissed off?

It happens to women with degrees in high flying subjects just as it happens to women who shelf stack at Tesco. It is universal in its appeal.

If you abuse this law - and use it to achieve  your own ends - wrongly - and in a situation where you are motivated by anger and revenge - you will have the blood of EVERY VICTIM of domestic violence on your hands. You will have every small child who has ever witnessed or heard their Mum being battered pointing the finger at you and asking you 'why?' ..You will have people like me looking at you as they lay on the floor in severe pain, fearing for their lives, covered in blood and surrounded by a puddle of their own urine...asking you 'why?' You will have relatives at the funerals of the two women each and every week who are killed in this country by their partners looking at you and asking you 'why?'

You'd better have an answer ready. And it needs to be a bloody good one. Think on. - No seriously now - Think on.

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