Despite decades of work by governments, police agencies, and charities, the statistics relating to domestic abuse are still horrific.
As reported in The Guardian earlier this year, official crime figures for England and Wales reveal that more than 1.1 million women (7%) and 720,000 men (4%) have been victims of some kind of domestic abuse in the last year.
In our experience, it is often at the point of breakup of a relationship that allegations of abuse first surface, which can lead to criminal and civil consequences for the abuser, and can make an already complicated and difficult situation even more tense.
Tragically, we have also seen occasions when partners in the heat of divorce and relationship breakdown have made unfounded allegations of domestic abuse or child cruelty against one another. This blog will address the implications for someone who finds themselves facing such a false allegation.
What is domestic abuse?
The Home Office defines domestic abuse as any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality.
The abuse can encompass, but is not limited to:
- Sexual; and/or
The government recently announced its intention to treat emotional abuse in relationships in the same way it treats other types of domestic abuse; with the aim of making it a criminal offence. Allegations of nonviolent but serious controlling, bullying or threatening behaviour may soon carry the same criminal and civil consequences. The need to act quickly and carefully if such an allegation is made is therefore even more important given the far reaching criminal and/or family law implications that could arise.
When false allegations surface
Facing a false allegation of domestic abuse or child cruelty is likely to be stressful and upsetting, and it can impact upon several aspects of your family life, employment, public reputation and/or your business.
If you think your spouse or partner is likely to report a false allegation of domestic abuse against you to the police or lawyers, you should act quickly and seek advice from legal professionals. Issues may arise under the civil law (family law), where the standard of proof is balance of probability, or under the criminal law, where, although the standard of proof is beyond reasonable doubt for a conviction, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decision on whether to charge an individual or not is made on the balance of probability (i.e. whether there is more than a 50% chance of a conviction). A CPS decision not to prosecute under the criminal law will however not prevent ongoing civil proceedings being brought by a former partner. As a first step, it is recommended that you keep a diary of any further incidents involving your spouse or partner and that you report these incidents to your lawyer as soon as they happen.
In instances when deliberately untruthful allegations are made against you, perhaps out of anger or which arise from the distress of the relationship breakdown, the implications can be very serious.
From a family law perspective, it is important to consider how any allegations against you might affect you in any divorce, financial or children proceedings. For example, your partner or spouse may try to have you removed from the family home and they could even obtain an Occupation Order to stop you from living in your home for a specified period of time. These Orders can be extremely disruptive and will often negatively impact many aspects of your life, including the time you spend with your children, your performance at work and your ability to afford alternative accommodation.
However, if you fear that false allegations of abuse may be made against you if you stay in the family home, it may be that moving away for a time is important. You should take advice to help you consider the pros and cons of this carefully and you should explore with your lawyers whether any other pre-emptive steps should be taken. For example, limiting contact with your spouse or partner to written communications only.
Allegations of domestic abuse and child cruelty can also involve Social Services and the police. The involvement of Social Services can complicate any potential children proceedings and could limit your involvement in your child(ren)’s day-to-day arrangements. Your credibility as a parent can also be brought into question and it can be difficult to disprove such allegations if the right action is not taken quickly.
Dealing with the police
The police are committed to pursuing a ‘pro-arrest and prosecution’ policy, often regardless of the wishes of the person who has made the allegations against you. Due to the nature of the offences, it is common for the person who has made the accusation of abuse to withdraw the allegation, often under coercion from the abuser. Because of this, it is public policy for the police to continue investigating and the CPS to make a decision on charge even when an allegation has been withdrawn. In some police forces, arrest rates for those accused of domestic abuse are as high as 90%. In practice, you may have to spend a night in a police cell and be forced to take time off work in circumstances that can be difficult to explain.
If you are in a regulated profession, such as accountants, lawyers, those in the financial services industry or a medical professional, there may be obligations to disclose the fact of the arrest, charge or conviction to your regulatory body and suspension and disciplinary proceedings may follow. Similarly, your employment contract may require disclosure of such events. Equally, if you are a person in the public eye, any such allegation, even if later disproved, can cause serious damage to your reputation.
Whilst at the police station, you will probably be under a considerable amount of stress. The police may put you under pressure to answer the allegations and you will be unlikely to have access to your phone, computer, diary or any other record which may help you to recall what happened and potentially disprove the allegations against you. In these circumstances, there will be a considerable power imbalance between you and the police; the process is intended to be intimidating.
The police also have significant powers available. They are free to investigate and take advice, and may keep you in custody for up to 24 hours without permission from the court.
Fortunately, there are things you can do to redress the imbalance if you are arrested:
- Remember that you do not have to answer police questions, although you should bear in mind that when the court is considering the credibility of someone’s defence, it may take into account that you did not mention it when questioned at the police station. This is a complex area of law and requires legal advice from the outset
- You have the right to let someone know that you’ve been arrested, not just make a phone call. This is important to ensure that you, or someone else on your behalf, obtain the right legal advisors for you
- You should seek advice from lawyers who have expertise in both criminal and family law issues
- Finally, you have the right to independent legal advice at any time whilst you are held in police custody, and not just when the police are ready to interview you
Facing these types of allegations is stressful and emotional but receiving legal advice to assist you in preparing and adopting a responsive, quick and robust strategy as early on as possible, is crucial.