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Domestic Violence and Threats to Life

August 17, 2011

The following appeared in the Times on-line, on 14 April 2011, Beaten Women, why the Police do need Training:

The speech by Keir Starmer,QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions about the extent of domestic violence — two women are killed a week — is groundbreaking and characteristic of his term in office; but other actors in the criminal justice system need to take similar steps in preventing the loss of life where threats have been made but not acted upon.

The DPP warned of the “shocking” problem of domestic violence against teenagers, warning that they are being preyed on by a new generation of woman-beaters.

Women aged 16 to 19 were now more at risk of domestic abuse than any other age group, he said, urging a “redoubling” of efforts to tackle the problem.

Despite strides, “gritty problems” persisted with prosecuting domestic violence and in 2009-10 more than 6,500 cases collapsed because the victim failed to attend court or retracted her evidence — one in three of the total failed prosecutions on domestic violence.

In a report last year the Independent Police Complaints Authority concluded 13 killings involved victims who had been in touch with police before the final incident resulting in death.

The admission by Northumbria Police last July that they had received information suggesting that Raoul Moat represented a significant risk to his former girlfriend and others is, sadly, just another example of a failure on the part of the police to grip on the acute problem of handling threats to life.

The Northumbria Force is not alone. In February, an inquest found that failings on the part of police in Nottinghamshire had led to the shooting dead of Joan and John Stirland by organised criminals. Julia Hodson, the Chief Constable, apologised for her force’s failings and the National Police Improvement Agency described the protection provided as “inadequate”.

Recent history is littered with examples where there has been a failure to discharge the most basic policing function.

In 2004 Tania Moore was executed by her estranged partner Mark Dyche, who had subjected to her to threats and increasing violence, including a serious robbery, for over nearly two years. Dyche followed Miss Moore home one evening, forced her car off the road before shooting her dead at point-blank range. Dyche had not only been before the courts for abusing Miss Moore, but the police had returned to him his firearms that had been earlier seized.

United Kingdom law is aligned with the jurisprudence from the European Court of Human Rights on Article 2 obligations, the right to life.

The leading case is Osman, a case arising from this jurisdiction, which established a number of clear principles, the most important of which remains that for a duty to protect to exist, the police must or ought to have known that there was a real and immediate threat to the life of an individual from an identifiable source.

This principle was later approved by the House of Lords in 2008, in the case of Van Colle v Chief Constable of Hertfordshire Police.

The terms “real” and “immediate” have since been defined by one of the many cases emanating from Northern Ireland where threats to life, particularly from paramilitary groups, are almost a daily occurrence.

A real threat must be capable of “objective verification” and immediate means “present and continuing”. The House of Lords made it clear that for Article 2 to engage a high threshold must be overcome but, once it is, the duties and obligations on the part of the police are onerous and continue for as long as the threat exists.

The problem is not so much understanding legal principles but more about training officers on applying them.

There is no national training model for handling threats to life and little money available for local training to be provided (presumably now less after recent government cutbacks).

It is grim reflection of the state of policing when it is mandatory for officers to have to undergo a course on manual lifting, for the benefit of health and safety but not on the practical obligations arising out of a risk to someone’s life. This is very much to the frustration of officers on the ground who both want the training and benefit enormously from it being provided. In the final analysis, it results in lives being saved.

On May 13, 2005, Mr Justice Bean having sentenced Dyche to life imprisonment for the murder of Tania Moore said that “the failure to bring anyone to justice for the robbery in 2003 and the failure to act on Tania’s report of the many harassing text messages are matters of serious concern. The Moore family and the public are entitled to a full explanation of what went wrong and the lessons that can be learnt from this tragic case.”

Derbyshire Police were later heavily criticised but it is clear from the cases that have followed that if lessons are being learnt, it is on ad hoc basis not as a result of a national strategy to standardise the training officers receive in this area.

The author is a solicitor-advocate at McKay Law in Leeds and author of the Guide to Handling Threats to Life

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One Comment
  1. Mark permalink

    Great blog, very insightful.

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