Seconds out for domestic violence

Roger Pearson reports on the importance of keeping within time limits when working on breaches of the Domestic Violence Act. A recent ruling by the Master of the Rolls, Lord Woolf, highlights the need for swift action when arrests are made for breaches of court orders under the Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act.

Lawyers say the case emphasises how vital it is for police and lawyers to work hand-in-hand in such matters.

"There has to be good teamwork between lawyers and police because there is the risk that the person who has breached the order could get away on a technicality without being punished," says Julia Turner of Southampton firm Warner Goodman & Streat, who acted for a woman who had complained of assault by her husband.

The case shows how those in the husband's position might be able to ward off committal proceedings if there is a delay in bringing them before the courts.

Police were called after reports that the husband, who was subject to non-molestation and ouster injunctions, had assaulted his wife. He was arrested on suspicion of the criminal offence of causing his wife actual bodily harm, was bailed, but was then re-arrested and taken before the county court for breach of the injunction.

Initially the county court judge adjourned the matter, but when it finally came to a full hearing the man argued that the court had no jurisdiction to deal with him because the Domestic Violence Act stipulates that those accused of breaches such as these must be brought before the court within 24 hours of arrest. In this instance more than 24 hours had passed since police first took the man into custody.

However, the judge took the view that because the initial arrest had been in respect of a criminal offence the 24-hour limit did not begin until he was re-arrested. The man was brought before the court within 24 hours of his re-arrest, and a suspended six-month jail sentence was imposed.

The county court judge's decision was upheld by the Master of the Rolls and Lords Justice Ward and Mummery.

According to Turner, this case highlights the problems faced by practitioners handling this kind of situation. She says that such arrests may often initially be made on suspicion of a criminal offence. But there is always the possibility that the police or the Crown Prosecution Service will decide not to prosecute and then the only way of ensuring that some sort of action is taken is by way of contempt proceedings.

To ensure that procedures are properly observed – particularly time limits – liaising with the police is vital, says Turner, a specialist family practitioner for more than 10 years. She explains: "In this case the husband's arguments failed, but had more than 24 hours passed between his re-arrest and his appearance before the county court, the situation could have been very different.

"We have had instances where there have been delays because the private companies that take people to and from court have been late. That sort of thing could result in the time limits being exceeded.

"This is why those involved in this sort of work must keep the police fully informed and serve copies upon them when injunctions with powers of arrest are granted, so that if they do arrest someone they are immediately aware of the possibility of civil proceedings and the need for speed once the arrest has been made in respect of contempt allegations rather than criminal matters."