Vera Baird DBE KC

Writer, Lecturer, Parliamentary Consultant and Co-Director of Astraea: Gender Justice

Feminism in London Conference

Vera’s address to the seminar on: Feminism in violence against women policy
The emergence of a feminist understanding, at first of the hidden crime of domestic violence, impacted hugely on policy on violence against women in the longer run.

•    It was essentially the Refuge Movement that first counted the figures and demonstrated that DV was not something that was done by a few cruel and unusual men.
•    That violence in the home was as to more than 90%, by men on women
•    That its prevalence was astonishing

Until then, domestic violence was seen not only as a private matter, but also as quite ordinary, if unfortunate. It was what happened in households when marriages were under stress – she nags, he hits. – the two battle forms of women and men. That is certainly what the police always thought and I am not sure that they do not think that sometimes now.


There was a limited adoption into policy of the emerging feminist understanding that this was a state matter not a private matter.
There were two policy points
•    To give her a remedy that would stop him from hitting her
•    To get domestic violence recognised as a specific wrong, not just part of the ups and downs of domestic life

The first appearance of violence against women in Parliamentary politics was in 1976 when Jo Richardson, Labour MP for Barking, introduced a Bill to give women who suffered from domestic violence the right to apply for an injunction.

Prior to that a few women had brought applications to the court which had to be brought under the law of tort.  Although assault is a criminal wrong it is also a tort, something for which a victim can sue for damages. A woman had to sue for damages for assault and apply for an injunction ordering him not to hit her again, as an interim order while the case for damages was getting to court. This was really a legal fiction because no DV sufferer was going to sue for damages. I did some of these cases when a young barrister.

Jo’s Bill gave a special right to ask just for an injunction to victims of domestic violence, cutting out the legal fiction but still leaving the initiative to the woman.
It was a private law remedy. She had to sue rather than the State prosecuting him.

The Wilson Government took up Jo Richardson’s Bill and it became law.

Injunctions could be to order him
(1) to  stop hitting her and/or  (2)  Leave the house.
Rare to get an “ouster” injunction telling him to go
Judges thought that the man would be paying the rent and was entitled to live in “his own home” and to be with his children,

Injunctions are granted “on the balance of convenience” That means that it is wiser to grant it than not and Judges at least thought it better to give her the protection of ordering him not to hit her.

But it was also rare to get a power of arrest attached to an order not to hit her, though it was available in the legislation.
That meant that injunctions were registered with the police and if the perpetrator started to assault her, she could call the police who would execute the injunction power of arrest.

Judges worried that having a power of arrest would give her too much power over the perpetrator.
If they had an argument, she could threaten to have him arrested and make the police into her accomplices in their domestic battles.
What she had to do instead was to go back to court and issue further papers to ask for him to be convicted of contempt of court for breaking the injunction not to hit her.
That would not be much use as a deterrent compared to the intervention of a police officer when the perpetrator is beating her up.
Jo was a great woman. She made the first ever policy and legislative progress for domestic violence victims. Though it was small progress.

The Heilbron Report on rape was instigated by feminist protest about the case of R v Morgan in 1976. That case upheld the rule that if a woman had suffered forced sex but the man believed she was consenting, however unreasonable that belief was, then he was not guilty. The requirement that there could be no defence unless that belief was reasonable was not brought into the law until 2003 but Heilbron recommended that the rape complainants should be kept anonymous because of the intimate nature of the evidence they had to give. Another partial victory for feminism; and a tribute to another woman ahead of her time, Mrs Justice Rose Heilbron and a tribute to the then Labour Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins who implemented her recommendation.

These first faltering policy steps disappeared totally from policy during the intervening years of Conservative Government. When I went into Parliament I searched Hansard for any reference to domestic violence after Jo’s Bill and found a couple of mentions by Labour women with no response from the Government.

However, as Jill Radford described in her talk to you, feminism gave rise to refuges, rape crisis and other women’s services during that period and though they frequently struggled for funding, they were supported and championed by many active political women. Feminists outside and inside the Labour Party pursued the need for more women MPs so as to make policy advance in these areas again. Labour adopted the policy of All Women Shortlists, in which certain constituencies were allowed to choose their Parliamentary candidate only from women applicants, thus guaranteeing an increase in numbers of women. In the 1997 General Election over a hundred women MPs were elected, most of them Labour. At least a handful had been actively involved in violence against women issues outside Parliament and they determined that more policy progress would be made.

In 1997 there were All Party Groups of MPs with an interest in beer, in whisky, in cider and in a lot of Indian Ocean Islands it was nice to visit, but no All Party Group on Domestic Violence Against Women. These women set one up, campaigned for support, lobbied Ministers, won a White Paper then a Strategy on Domestic Violence, some cash for refuges and RCCs, and promoted the idea that Domestic Violence is criminal.

Continuing to work with feminist colleagues outside Parliament, they put  violence against women – in the form of rape and domestic violence – onto the  mainstream agenda. There was no need for a private members Bill this time, Government introduced Bills on both sexual and Domestic violence.

There were still ideological issues to work out as we moved into policy formation

It was necessary to re visit the issue of private enforcement v public enforcement by the State.

Giving women the right to get injunction still inferred this violence was a private issue on which she needed to take private action – in principle it should be public issue like other crime

However we wanted to empower women by showing them that if they can tell someone what is happening, there will be a refuge there; the court will support them; there will be sympathetic police and lawyers who will take the case forward and make them safe; they can get a new home if they have to leave, or oust him; they can keep their kids and have a power of arrest so that they have meaningful protection in an emergency.
That led us to believe that we should keep the response to domestic violence in the area of private law, empower her to take the initiative and surround her with help.
Another factor is that many women do not want to send their erstwhile partner to jail through reporting to the police, they just want the violence to stop.

But the contrary principle is that domestic violence ought not to be something for a private citizen to be obliged to act upon; in which either a victim of violent crime takes a private initiative or nothing happens.

It should be dealt with like any other crime of violence and oppression
But it is worse than other violence
It is worse than violence on the streets from which a victim can escape to a safe home
It is also of epidemic proportions. It is a tool of social control over women. The State has a duty to intervene on behalf of one half of the population who are potentially oppressed by the other half.
So we should oblige the public authorities to act
Make the police arrest, the CPS prosecute, the Courts convict and sentence. Declare domestic violence to be a serious crime and thereby send out a deterrent message.

In the end we tried to do both –
There are now trained police and CPS, Independent DV Advisers to befriend and support and Special Domestic Violence Courts. The public sphere is stronger for her
Women understand that it can be a serial offence and for the sake of other women too it has to be criminalised. Police and CPS will now sometimes prosecute, even if she doesn’t want it.

However we also preserved the right for an individual to take out a private law injunction and to enforce it either through taking him back to court for contempt, as before or by ringing the police, since we made breach of such an injunction into a criminal offence in itself.

To go back to rape after Heilbron, there was progress there too, across the law, evidence and support, again driven by the feminist influence inside Parliament buttressed by campaigning women outside.

We introduced Independent Sexual Violence Advisers to befriend and support survivors of sexual assault, specially trained police and CPS  and we asked the judiciary to look at their directions to juries in rape trials to ensure that they embodied uptodate understandings and not myths and outdated stereotypes about women – so they became more specialist courts.

In a nutshell, (since this is a short address) at some stage the clouds lifted and we saw that we were implementing similar measures to protect the two kinds of survivor. We were also campaigning about FGM, forced marriage, trafficking and prostitution. All are violence against women and they need to be tackled as what they are, perhaps hate crime against women, but certainly against women.

In 2009 we carried out an extensive nationwide consultation to formulate a Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy.

However, the last election has brought a new government who will not implement that strategy. They intend to produce a strategic narrative in November and to produce a strategy in the spring.
However it will be based on localism for services with no data monitoring, scrutiny or targets and there will be massive public sector cuts so that the future looks bleak. Nobody in central Government either understands or champions this sector. I cannot see a feminist anywhere.

Feminism has influenced policy deeply in the last decade but I suspect it won’t any more for quite a while.



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