There is increasing pressure on countries around the world to improve the legal protection offered to victims of domestic violence, stalking, gender-based harassment and similar crimes. But reaching agreement on what are the best options is not so easy, with few working models available.
The United Kingdom is seen as one of the countries leading the way in this area, and it is being praised by campaigners for efforts to trial new methods to combat what has become a pressing problem.
Official figures show that in Britain two women a week are killed by their partner or ex-partner, with nearly half having experienced some form of stalking, sexual assault or domestic violence. Action had to be taken, and Britain now wants to be seen as leading the way amid constant reminders that progress elsewhere on the issue is slow.
Some countries in the European Union still do not even have criminal or civil laws that provide specific protection orders for victims of violence, or victims facing threats of violence and harassment. Also, stalking is still not considered a crime in its own right in many countries. But Britain seems to have decided to show by example.
As well as introducing tough anti-stalking legislation in November 2012, which allows for prison terms of up to five years for those convicted, other legal tools are being promoted and developed across the country, especially to help victims of domestic violence.
The UK already offered citizens and the police the possibility of seeking what are known as ‘restraining orders’ and ‘non-molestation orders’, aimed at keeping perpetrators of violence away from their victims. There are also ‘occupation’ orders, to keep offenders away from specified addresses, but also orders that ban close proximity and contact with victims. Orders can be issued before, during and after trials, under criminal law, but even if there are eventual acquittals. People can also apply for protection orders under civil law and a breach of these orders is a criminal offence.
But the UK is also testing other measures, specifically for situations of domestic violence, to make sure protection can be offered immediately, even before cases are able to be heard before a judge. The police are able to issue alleged aggressors with what are called Domestic Violence Protection Notices, in emergency situations, with magistrates then called on to confirm the restrictions imposed with the issuing of Domestic Violence Protection Orders. The new measures are being trialled in a handful of UK police forces and the results are due to be assessed after the summer.
However, despite all of the legal work being carried out in the UK and elsewhere on making protection orders more readily available, there are serious questions about the enforcement of such orders and whether or not they really are effective. Studies have been carried out in Europe on whether or not the police are actually doing enough to make sure that orders are respected and whether victims are any safer because of them. The results are mixed.
Some campaign groups actually warn victims to think twice about getting a protection order, especially in stalking cases, saying it can often inflame the situation. It is just a piece of paper, they say, and it does not guarantee safety if someone is determined to cause harm. Getting and receiving protection from the authorities should not be seen as the ultimate solution; do not blindly rely on them. Other forms of personal protection and self-help measures are just as important, the campaigners warn. Seeking advice from experts and support groups is also crucial.
Prevention may also be something else the authorities should consider. For example, another ground-breaking measure that is currently being trialled in the UK is giving people the right to contact the police to ask whether or not their spouse or partner (especially a new partner) has a history of violence or threatening behaviour. The police would have the legal right to decide whether information should be shared, in the interests of someone’s personal safety. There are obvious privacy concerns about this measure, and that is why it is being trialled, to see what legal issues may arise.
Also, taking a closer more clinical look at the core of the problem – what is actually behind the stalking behaviour? – is something else that some say should not be ignored. For example, London has seen the opening of the country’s first ever National Stalking Clinic, which helps not only victims but also the stalkers themselves, to assess whether their obsessive behaviour can be treated. The clinic, which may actually be the first of its kind anywhere, only opened at the end of 2011, so it is too soon to say whether or not it has made any real difference.
By Seamus Kearney