Violence against women. The judicial system is trying – is it succeeding?

I have been a magistrate for over thirty years and prior to that was a special constable. During those decades views on domestic violence, specifically violence against women have changed considerably – but there is still a long way to go. In the past, the model was largely the ‘Andy Capp’ cartoon featured in the Daily Mirror from 1957. Women were subservient, best placed in the home with a single role to provide for all mens’ needs. The cartoon strip thrived on Florence Capp being unprepared for tea on the table at 5pm sharp and Andy’s violent response to it. The view of police and the wider judiciary was - then and until recently - largely that if he hit her, she obviously deserved it.

We have advanced significantly. The courts have moved from a model where violence in a domestic context was a mitigating factor reducing the assailant’s sentence, to one where it is a serious aggravating factor, resulting in a higher sentence for any comparable level of violence. Victim shaming at court was previously prevalent (‘she asked for it’ or ‘she provoked him’) to a current regime where most judges (me included) will stop any attempt by a defence advocate to blame or shame the victim. The system isn’t perfect and there is still quite a way to go to ensure the judiciary supports women in that context, without prejudicing the rights of the accused to a proper defence.

Support for women who are victims, or potential victims of violence varies across the country and is afforded a different priority, principally by different Police and Crime Commissioners, the elected policing budget holders in each area in England and Wales. In Cambridgeshire for example, the commissioner funds the “Bobby Scheme”, a local charity (of which I am a trustee) formed in 2000 which works with vulnerable victims of crime and has long had a particular focus on women caught in, or likely to be caught in domestic violence. The charity will support victims after an incident perhaps by replacing locks, providing alarms and so on, through to construction of a full panic room, also working proactively on the recommendations of police, social services or others. Frequently the Samaritans refer women to us. We have never had to turn down a request for support for want of funds. Unfortunately there are only a small number of such schemes nationally (about six) and support for victims varies widely, relying on local authorities and charities to fund and provide support.

A major challenge which I regularly observe at court is that the defendants accused of violence towards women don’t see that there is any issue. At a trial I heard within the last month, the male defendant had hit the female complainant multiple times resulting in severe cuts and bruises and also a broken nose, with enduring physical and emotional pain. He could not see that he had done anything wrong, as she had (he said) grossly over-reacted to his cheating on her. Under cross-examination he volunteered that if she had cheated on him, he might have killed her. Alas that outcome is all too common. Estimates vary but the current view is that at least two women die each week as a result of male perpetrated violence. In the case of my trial, although she has recovered from the physical damage, he will have some time in prison to think about what he has done. Unfortunately, I am not convinced that he will emerge at the end of his sentence as a changed and reformed man.


This is one of a series of four blogs SEEN is publishing to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women 2023. See here for the others.

Cover photo by UN Women on Flickr (licence)