BBC takes a gutsy look at legal issues surrounding domestic violence

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By Katie King on

Shocking documentary shows victims can face a “mockery of justice”


BBC1 took a cold, hard look last night at the anguish faced by women living in the shadow of domestic abuse, and the legal hurdles they have to overcome to bring their attackers to justice.

The gritty documentary followed the stories of three victims of domestic violence — Sabrina, Helen and Jemma — from the moment their 999 calls were made through to their ex-partners’ criminal trials and sentencing.

Aside from being shocking and often disturbing, the documentary did well to explore some of the thorny legal issues faced not only by the victims but also the Thames Valley Police domestic abuse teams that so badly want to help them.

Take 32-year-old Sabrina, who was beaten mercilessly for six hours by her partner. She told the cameras:

I’ve never been so frightened and I honestly thought I was going to die. I thought he was going to kill me. I can’t even begin to explain what it felt like, it’s almost resigning yourself to the fact that, ‘This is it, I’m going to die.’

After Sabrina’s partner’s arrest, the domestic abuse team was initially told by the prosecutors that he would be charged with grievous bodily harm (GBH). Halfway through the documentary, however, it was revealed that Sabrina’s injuries — though very visible — did not meet the required legal threshold.

A GBH charge is reserved for serious attacks causing serious injuries — stab wounds and broken bones, for example. Sabrina, though relentlessly beaten, managed to escape from the callous attack with severe bruises only, so her ex was charged with actual bodily harm (ABH) instead.

Twitter was not happy about it.

Including Graham from Jeremy Kyle.

An officer from the CPS described the incident as the worst case of ABH she had ever seen, and the police were hopeful Sabrina’s attacker would be slammed with the maximum penalty of five years. Instead he was sentenced to two years in prison and is likely to be released this spring, which also rattled viewers.

Helen’s story also moved the Twitterati. The 37-year-old took out a restraining order against her ex-partner Lawrence Feek, after he attacked her in January 2015. Throughout the programme, he breached his non-molestation order multiple times by trying to contact her, yet he continued to be released on bail by the magistrates. A furious Helen lamented that she “can’t see him ever being brought to justice”.

Twitter agreed, and seemed genuinely shocked by the courts’ treatment of the domestic abuse victim.

And Helen’s father commented:

It seems the more charges you get, the more lenient the courts are. It makes a mockery of the whole justice system.