By Yvette Cooper MP
First Published Fri 19 Nov 2021
The six-month limit on reporting assaults too often allows the perpetrators to escape justice
Imagine gathering the strength and courage to report an incident of domestic abuse to the police, only to be told that it is too late for them to take any action – you have been timed out, there’s nothing they can do. This is what is happening to thousands of domestic abuse victims every year when they discover that a six-month time limit applies to their case. The law isn’t working, and it is part of a wider failure of the criminal justice system to properly recognise or tackle violence against women and girls. A crucial vote in parliament on Monday provides the opportunity to change the law – now we need the government to show its support.
(Photo – The image above features – A protest by Refuge outside New Scotland Yard, October 2021. Photograph: Alberto Pezzali/AP)
Figures show that, over the past five years, police in England and Wales dropped close to 13,000 domestic abuse cases because they ran out of time, as a result of a six-month limit on prosecuting common assault cases in magistrates courts. The full figures are likely to be much higher – and the problem is getting worse, with more victims being timed out every year.
The ostensible purpose of the time limit is to keep the justice system moving for lower-level offences in the magistrates courts that don’t pass the threshold for crown court. Charges have to be laid within six months of the offence so that cases can be decided quickly and everyone can move on. But while that might make sense for a fight in a pub, or an assault by a stranger in the street, it simply doesn’t work for domestic abuse.
There are countless reasons why victims of domestic abuse may take time to report assaults to the police. The abuse may be continuing; leaving may be emotionally hard or fraught with physical danger; victims may feel ashamed; they may have nowhere to go or no money with which to leave; there may be children who need time and support to resettle. Victims have to muster a huge amount of courage to go to the police. For them to then be told nothing will happen can leave them feeling more vulnerable than ever, while their abuser is emboldened.
While it is true that the most serious cases can still be prosecuted as actual bodily harm through a crown court, where there is no time limit, or through the more recent law on coercive control, vast numbers of domestic abuse cases every year are ruled to not meet that higher threshold. Police officers have told me of their frustration trying to secure an actual bodily harm prosecution against a violent perpetrator, only to be told by the Crown Prosecution Service that it should be downgraded to common assault instead. But too often by that time it is too late, and the perpetrator walks free.
The consequence is that, once again, the criminal justice system is failing to recognise the reality of violence against women and girls. Laws and procedures designed to tackle other kinds of assault just don’t work for domestic abuse, but there has been a blindness to the experiences of abuse victims that has seen the problem continue for far too long.
Earlier this year, I proposed an amendment to change the existing law, removing the six-month limit for domestic abuse cases to give victims more time to come forward. On Monday, the former victims commissioner, Baroness Newlove, will take the amendment forward in the House of Lords. In advance of the debate, and together with violence against women experts, we have written to the home secretary asking her to accept our amendment. It has support from the domestic abuse commissioner, senior police officers, Refuge, Women’s Aid and the Centre for Women’s Justice. Rightly, the government has promised stronger action to tackle violence against women and girls – Monday will be an opportunity to put this promise into action.
This law change could make the difference in getting thousands of survivors and victims of abuse across the country each year the justice and the protection they need. Too many have been let down – such as the incredible campaigner Erica Osakwe, who spoke out about her own experience to try to get the law changed, or the brave woman in my constituency who reported appalling abuse to the police, only to be told the investigation had run out of time and there was nothing more she could do. Victims have shown huge strength in coming forward, only to find their chance of justice stolen by the time limit, giving the perpetrator the chance to abuse once more. It’s time to change the law. On Monday, we must not let survivors and victims down again.
Yvette Cooper is the Labour MP for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford
In the UK, call the national domestic abuse helpline on 0808 2000 247, or visit Women’s Aid