The six month time limit that makes access to justice an illusion for victims of domestic violence
Domestic abuse is not classified as a criminal offence on its own. Suspects are charged with offences related to domestic abuse – namely harassment, common assault, grievous or actual bodily harm, sexual assault etc. The offences listed, excluding common assault, are classified as indictable offences.
Such offences are tried in the Crown Court and are not statute barred. Common assault is categorised for the purposes of the law as a summary offences and tried in the Magistrates Court. Common assault includes pushing, being spat at, raising a fist and threatening behaviour. Such offences must be reported, investigated and tried within six months beginning with the date of the offence.
The six month time limit does not reflect the reality of the victims’ personal circumstances, nor the complexities of investigation into the offence. Dealing with the former, a victim may be reluctant to report to the police because they are scared, do not feel safe, the perpetrator’s behaviour is continuing, the victim suffers from anxiety and low self-esteem, or they may be concerned that the perpetrator will take or influence their shared children.
Two months or more may pass before they report the offence to the police, leaving the police less time to investigate. The police may then have to grapple with medical reports or forensics meaning the six month time period continues to lapse. Suffering domestic violence is traumatic in itself, to say the least. Why, then, is the law contributing to the victim’s stress and trauma by putting a timer on their rightly deserved justice?
The UK government and domestic violence
According to the UK government who purport to take domestic violence ‘seriously’, their reasoning for putting a timer on justice and refusing to extend the six month limit in 2020, was on the basis that summary offences must be kept ‘moving’ for the sake of ‘certainty’ and ‘fairness’.
Fairness outweighs certainty in this respect. The question is simple – is it fair that perpetrators of domestic violence can get away with it? 13,000 cases in England and Wales had been dropped in five years because the six month time limit had ran its course. Does the UK government think that this is a fair statistic?
The argument by the Ministry of Justice that there are other offences to fall back on if common assault is not met, is vacuous. There are numerous where either the police or Crown Prosecution Service determine that the thresholds for actual bodily harm or coercive control cannot be met, and common assault is the only offence to fall back on.
Priti Patel would seem to have taken the correct U-turn away from the Ministry of Justice’s 2020 comments, as a result of her recent welcome sign of life into extending the time frame to up to two years.
This would make access to justice a reality for victims of violence. The UK government has, however, failed to make an official announcement on the matter. Whether the UK government will open their eyes to the blind spot in the criminal justice system remains to be seen.