19 Oct 2013

Britain’s courts ‘endanger’ domestic violence victims

Home Affairs Correspondent

Victims of domestic abuse are being put back in harms way by the courts, sometimes because of simple administrative errors. Campaigners now want a change in the law to give victims better protection.

“Emotionally I was a wreck, I thought I was worthless. He didn’t look at me like a human being, he treated me like a dog, I was there to be kicked when he was in a bad mood.”

A harrowing description of the abuse suffered by Christabel Young, who met her former partner when she was just 17-years-old.

“I lived with him for eight years. He was very controlling, emotionally. That ended in domestic violence, some of which was sexual. He tried to kill me a number of times,” she said.

Finally, after eight years, she left him. Ms Young told me she relied on friends and family, who put her up in a safe house. But she also relied on the civil courts for protection, because her ex knew her place of work; knew where her parents lived.

Court reveals address

He would regularly turn up and threaten her, even attacking her in the street. The one thing her former partner didn’t know was her address – that was until it was revealed to him by the very court she had turned to for protection:

It’s vital that agencies and courts really understand just what that takes and just how high the stakes are. Victims’ lives are at stake – Jane Keeper, Refuge

“I went to court to get the non-molestation order for my protection, to keep him away from me, but my full home address written on the order and handed to him, within ten minutes he was outside my house, banging on the doors and windows and threatening me.”

Ms Young showed me the order and described how frightening it was when she realised what had happened. “I was completely terrified. But also angry. Any tiny bit of safety I had felt was gone.”

She was forced to flee to another location, leaving behind the only place of safety she had known in years. But she’s far from alone. We’ve visited numerous courts and spoken to women across the country who have had the same bitter experience. Women put at risk and afraid for their lives, when their addresses have been revealed to their former partners.

Eve’s law
Christabel Young and other women who have survived domestic violence, are now supporting a campaign for a change in the law.

Eve Thomas is one of them. She suffered a violent marriage for 21 years. She has spoken out about the failings of the courts and told Channel 4 News: “I’ve been contacted by many women who say their addresses have been written on court documents, including non-molestation orders, which are then served on their former partners.”

Ms Thomas is now calling for an “Eve’s law,” to allow victims of domestic violence to withhold their addresses in court to protect them and their children. “Victims need protecting, not distressing.”

Ms Thomas claims she was recently threatened with prison for contempt, after she refused to reveal her “flee address” (a secret address she can go to if her ex-partner ever threatens her) in court. She was taken to a civil court after getting into debt with a former friend.

In response to her campaign, the Ministry of Justice told Channel 4 News: “In rare cases where victims of domestic violence are also debtors in small claims cases – and refuse to pay their debt or comply with attempts by the court to arrange payment plans – judges are left with no option but to take action that allows the debt to be enforced. “Such action will always be at the discretion of a judge, taking account of individual circumstances.”

The CPS does have guidelines to protect those who have suffered domestic violence when their cases reach criminal courts. But their experiences in civil courts are very different. The disclosures are sometimes blamed on administrative errors, sometimes on court officials not realising the risk that disclosing a victim’s details can cause.

There is worrying evidence that some violent abusers are purposely bringing civil court proceedings as a way of finding out their ex’s contact details.

Solicitor Rachel Horman told me: “I have dealt with several cases where the father has got hold of a mother’s address by starting civil court proceedings, for example by claiming he wants contact with his children. Her address is then given out to him, putting her at great risk.”

‘Victims’ lives are at stake’

Ms Horman, who heads up a domestic violence unit, says its often down to a simple lack of thought by court officials. Some solicitors say they’re so concerned, that they often advise women not to apply for injunctions because of the risk of their location being disclosed.

The Ministry of Justice told Channel 4 News that the courts regularly handle extremely sensitive cases and have a range of measures to support vulnerable victims – but campaigners say these measures aren’t enough.

It set me back, I was too frightened to go out on my own all over again – Christabel Young

Jane Keeper from the charity Refuge told Channel 4 News they regularly help women whose details have been revealed by the courts. “Where victims have the courage to speak out to get help and get away from domestic violence, it’s vital that agencies and courts really understand just what that takes and just how high the stakes are. Victims’ lives are at stake.”

Christabel Young’s partner was eventually convicted of a serious assault against her. Shortly after his release from prison, he suffered a fatal heart attack – the only reason she says she fees able to speak out.

But the effects of that one error made by the court still haunt her: “It’s a very difficult thing to shake. I had to have counselling for over a year. It set me back, I was too frightened to go out on my own all over again.

“Still now, it’s difficult for me to tell myself that perhaps I am worth a bit of safety.”