New report criticises defendants in Magistrates’ Court domestic violence cases
Dame Vera Baird QC, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumberland, has once more sought to bring issues of the prosecution of cases of domestic violence to the fore.
She has commissioned and published a report in which she denounces defendants who plead not guilty in cases alleging charges of domestic violence as ‘gaming the system’ in order to have cases dropped.
Magistrates refusal to grant CPS adjournment
The report maintains that defendants are using the period between plea and trial to intimidate partners into failing to attend court. Once a witness doesn’t attend, it is claimed that the courts are all too quick to refuse adjournment requests, leaving the prosecution with no alternative but to offer no evidence, resulting in a not guilty verdict.
In 13 cases out 32 observed at one court centre, Magistrates refused an adjournment when the complainant failed to attend. As a result, the cases were dismissed despite arguments to the contrary from the CPS.
Late change of plea
In 21 cases at one court centre, defendants entered a not-guilty plea and asked for a trial. On the various dates fixed, the observers noticed, 12 of them pleaded guilty as soon as the victim turned up and before they had given any evidence.
Criticism of defence practitioners
Defence solicitors also attract criticism. Following a guilty plea or verdict, it is believed that they offer ‘irrelevant’ mitigation based on their client’s drunken state.
Of course, these complaints fail to acknowledge two important matters:
- being drunk is an aggravating feature in sentencing guidelines rather than mitigation
- whether a defendant was drunk may, however, allow the court to treat an isolated incident as being our of character
What is the real complaint?
In reality, the complaints within the report seem to relate to the following:
- the failure to give proper training to Magistrates
- a failure to properly fund support staff
- under use by police and CPS of the charge of coercive or controlling behaviour
- insufficient support of the complainant to ensure they attend to give evidence
- failure by police or CPS to present full information in support of applications for restraining orders
- evidential failings that impacted on the court process
- courts not ordering Newton Hearing to decide a factual basis for sentence where certain parts of an incident are denied
All of these are capable of change subject to the necessary resources being provided. The defence cannot be said to be responsible for any of them. At first glance the analysis of the limited number of cases in the study does not acknowledge the legal considerations and framework that would apply in many of the cases.
The report is based on a limited number of cases in a single geographical region so the conclusions that could or should be drawn are perhaps limited.
While defendants can be confident that they may gain an advantage in pleading not guilty and having the matter listed for trial they will continue to do so. Further, it is their right to test the evidence at trial.
The labelling of the entering of a not guilty plea as ‘gaming the system’ is unhelpful. Some defendants will do so hoping to gain the advantage of a witness not attending, others (perhaps the majority) will plead not guilty because they have a defence to the charges brought.
We regularly provide advice and representation at contested domestic violence trials. An example of such a trial can be found here.
Those defendants who in the end plead guilty will lose credit for a plea that could have been entered earlier and will find it extremely hard to argue that any genuine regret or remorse exists. Sentencing for domestic violence allegations are governed by a specific guideline.
The police and the prosecution have the evidential tools at their disposal to build many cases without the need for a complainant to attend. Some considerations relating to such cases can be found here.
Instruct an expert in defending domestic violence alleagations
Allegations of domestic violence are treated seriously by the courts. They also need handling with sensitivity. The law can be complex, particularly where the prosecution do not seek to rely on the complainant’s evidence.
As a result, if you are arrested or know that the police wish to speak to you about an offence of domestic violence make sure you insist on your right to free and independent legal advice.
If you have already been interviewed or face court proceedings we can still make a real difference to the outcome of your case. Legal aid may well be available to fund your defence at court.
We have offices across the East Midlands. You can find your most convenient office here. Alternatively you can contact us using the form below.