To ask the Secretary of State for Justice, what assessment he has made of variations in the degree to which perpetrators of domestic abuse who breach court orders or fail to engage or complete offender programmes (a) face consistency in sentencing practice and enforcement and (b) consistently receive the penalty of being sent to prison when such breaches are brought back to court; and if he will make a statement.
8 July 2014
Domestic violence is an appalling crime and we are committed to ensuring that it is tackled effectively and that victims can have confidence in the criminal justice system. The DPP recently announced that the highest ever conviction rate for domestic violence prosecutions, over 74%, and every police force is expected to have an action plan in place by September to improve further their response to domestic violence and abuse.
Sentencing is entirely a matter for the courts taking into account all the circumstances of each case and following any relevant sentencing guidelines issued by the independent Sentencing Council. The Sentencing Council has a duty to monitor the operation and effect of its guidelines including giving consideration to the frequency with which courts depart from the guidelines, the effect of the guidelines in promoting consistency of sentencing, and the effect of the guidelines in promoting public confidence in the criminal justice system.
Offending behaviour amounting to domestic violence is covered by a wide range of offences: there is no specific offence of domestic abuse. Sentencing in individual cases is a matter for the courts, but those who perpetrate serious acts of violence and abuse are likely to face long custodial sentences. Where a court does not impose an immediate custodial sentence, the main court orders which may be imposed in such cases are community orders, suspended sentence orders, restraining orders and non-molestation orders. The overarching sentencing guideline on domestic violence identifies the principles relevant to the sentencing of cases involving violence or abuse that has occurred in a domestic context.
In relation to breaches of community orders and suspended orders, the responsible officer makes an initial decision as to whether the offender has unreasonably failed to comply with the requirements of the order. If so, the legislation requires that the offender must either receive a warning or be returned to court for a breach hearing. Only one warning may be given in a 12 month period. If the court finds the offender in breach of a community order it must take action by: revoking the order and re-sentencing for the original offence, including possibly to custody; making the requirements of the order more onerous; or imposing a fine not exceeding £2,500. If the court finds an offender in breach of a suspended sentence order it must give effect to the custodial sentence unless it is satisfied that it would not be in the interests of justice to do so. If the custodial sentence is not given effect then the court must make the order more onerous or impose a fine not exceeding £2,500.
A restraining order may be imposed on conviction or acquittal. Restraining
orders imposed on acquittal can be an added protection for victims in situations where the abuse may be beyond the balance of probabilities, but not beyond reasonable doubt – the standard of proof required for criminal convictions. A non-molestation order may be imposed during family proceedings. Failure to comply with these orders is a criminal offence with a maximum penalty of five years' imprisonment.
Sentencing guidelines also cover breaches of community orders and suspended sentence orders, and the breach of a protective order (restraining orders and non-molestation orders). The guideline on breach of protective orders emphasises that in all cases the order will have been made to protect an individual from harm, and action in response to breach should have as its primary aim the importance of ensuring that the order is complied with and that it achieves the protection that it was intended to achieve. Where violence is used to breach a protective order, custody is the starting point for the sentence. The guideline also states that non-violent conduct in breach may cross the custody threshold where a high degree of harm or anxiety has been caused to the victim.