A joint statement has been issued by the Home and Justice Secretaries announcing a further amendment to be included in the Policing, Crime, Punishment and Courts Bill, currently before parliament. The proposal is to extend the time within which a complaint of common assault can be brought to court in certain circumstances.
Unlike civil cases, there is generally no time limit on when a criminal case can be taken to court. This in itself is the subject of debate, as to whether it is fair to try people years, or even decades, after an offense is alleged to have been committed. There is a relatively small exception to this general rule; namely, that minor offenses of assault and criminal damage which can only be tried in the Magistrates’ Courts must be brought within six months of the commission of the alleged offence.
The new proposal relates to common assault offenses that are alleged to have been committed in a “domestic context”. In such a situation, the case can be brought before the court, not within six months from the commission of the offence, but within six months from the date of its denunciation to the police subject to a overall period of two years. The reason for the change is that victims of domestic violence have a harder time building up the courage or confidence to file a complaint, which can delay reporting the matter to the police.
Justice Secretary MP Dominic Raab put it this way: The government was ‘committed to doing everything in its power to protect women, make them feel safer and give them greater confidence in the justice system”.
Needless to say, this is a laudable goal. In fact, one could go further and say that the government should do everything it can to protect everyone feel safe and trust the justice system.
Statistically, the overwhelming proportion of victims of domestic violence are women and it is only natural that they are the focus of government attention. This proposed change, however, raises a number of issues that Parliament will need to consider to ensure that the change in its final form not only protects those it is intended to protect, but does not cause injustice to other members potentially vulnerable in society. .
So far, the only detail is that contained in the press release referred to. Does the change apply to all victims of domestic violence? Although far fewer than women, there are cases that do come to court of male victims of domestic violence. Will the change also apply to them? If the rationale applies, it surely applies to anyone who experiences abuse in the home. Will this apply to children who are abused, sometimes by both parents, not just one? And how do we define a “domestic context”? Many cases will be obvious, but it’s easy to think of grayer areas where it’s harder to tell whether the context is domestic or not. And should this be determined as a preliminary matter in order to decide whether the case is on schedule or not?
Perhaps more fundamentally, is it fair to distinguish two different types of the same offence? It would appear that common assault outside the domestic context will remain subject to the current 6 month limit. Is it fair to other potentially vulnerable members of society? A gay or transgender person can be attacked because of their sexuality or a person of color because of the racist views of the attacker. In such cases, the fear instilled in them can be as great as the fear of a victim of domestic violence. Should the extended limit apply to them? Sure, there are “two-way” hate crime offenses that don’t have a time limit, but what if that aspect of the case can’t be proven for whatever reason? and that the only prosecutable offense is common assault?
The reason common assault can only be tried by Magistrates’ Court is that it is an assault that causes little or no injury. Otherwise, he will be charged with assault causing actual bodily harm, which can be tried either by the Magistrates’ or by the Crown Courts and therefore without time limit. So this change in law, if enacted, may have little or no impact for the simple and distressing reason that most domestic assaults result in injury, often serious.
Many may feel that the most important issue to address is giving victims of domestic violence the assurance that if they report an assault, no matter how serious or minor, and each time they report it, the system will not won’t give up and there will be the infrastructure in place to provide them with the support they need during the process. This requires greater investment in social services and the police to ensure they can adequately protect victims.
This is likely to offer greater protection to victims of domestic violence rather than a minor change in the law, which may have little practical effect but earns the government an easy headline.
Simon Spence QC is a solicitor at Red Lion Chambers