It’s the early 90s and your husband has come home in a drunken and aggressive state. He steadily hurls insults at you as you back away from him, drawing closer and eventually cornering you to deal a blow to your face that leaves you lying on the kitchen floor. Once the dizziness has passed, you stumble over to your telephone and dial 999 to try and get the police to help you, knowing that he may return and continue his rampage at any minute. However, to your dismay, they don’t seem to be particularly bothered by your plight no matter how much you try and describe the severity of the situation to them.

It may come as a surprise to many reading this today, but such a harrowing picture of helplessness in the face of domestic violence was fairly common 30 years ago. At the time, law enforcement generally avoided any involvement in what was typically referred to then as a mere ‘domestic’ and our state had no legally enforceable obligation to protect women or to investigate allegations of such crimes against them. In fact, raping a partner within a marriage had only just become a crime and judges in the courtroom would even consider female victims of such a heinous act to be complicit if they were wearing short skirts at the time it happened. To add insult to injury, if a woman then decided to take matters into her own hands to defend herself under such circumstances, she would still end up in no better of a position.

The case of Sara Thornton in 1991 is a perfect example of this. She was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of her violent alcoholic husband despite having only stabbed him once after a threatening altercation (one of the many which had preceded this incident) and immediately calling an ambulance thereafter. Upon attempting to appeal the court’s ruling with a plead for provocation, the judge outright refused her request and told her that she could have “walked out or gone upstairs” to diffuse the situation. Incidentally, in the very days that followed, another ongoing court case, which centred around a man, Joseph McPail, kicking his wife to death, saw a very different outcome. Joseph was contrastingly able to use the defence of provocation to get away with only two years in prison for the murder of his wife. The judge for his case went as far as to comment that she (the deceased) “would have tried the patience of a saint”.

Protests soon began against this atrocity of unfair treatment, with feminist groups taking to the streets to demand that Sara Thornton’s sentence be revoked. Among the protestors, a young Harriet Wistrich and her partner Julie Bindel chose to take things one step further by founding the Free Sarah Thornton campaign which eventually turned into a highly influential organisation called Justice for Women. Under the leadership of Wistrich, who is now one of the country’s leading human rights lawyers, Justice for Women successfully lobbied for instrumental changes to the law that would help prevent further mistreatment of the women it had thus far failed to protect. Alongside this, Wistrich’s personal career became dedicated to fighting for women in similar positions to Thornton and she succeeded in successfully representing these victims across dozens of highly complex and infamous cases of abuse. Fuelled in part by her work and the efforts of Justice for Woman, modern legislation has since seen the enactment of the Human Rights Act of 1998, the Sexual Offences Act 2003, the Equality Act 2010, the Modern Slavery Act 2015, the offence of coercive and controlling behaviour in the Serious Crimes Act 2015, and the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 – all of which have significantly reduced sexual inequality in the legal treatment of women.

Today’s modern legal landscape now lends itself far better to the plight of women in this country who are facing domestic abuse in their home, providing them with several tools that they can use to protect themselves from further abuse. The most notable of these is a standard Non-molestation Order which is an injunction from the court that prevents the abuser of the applicant from using any physical violence or threatening violence, or harassment against the applicant or their children. Women, and men too, can apply for this order without having to notify the opposing party who is then usually served notice of the application for an injunction against them in the days immediately after the application has been made. A minimum of at least 3 court hearings is then held with both parties being present – the first of which is usually within a week of the respondent being served notice – to determine whether the evidence presented by both parties does indeed warrant the granting of a non-molestation order. Once granted, a non-molestation order can last anywhere from 6-12 months and sometimes even longer in certain cases if deemed necessary. Another, more drastic approach in the case of severe domestic abuse is to apply for an occupational order which is an injunction that prevents the abuser from residing within the same home as the applicant – usually the family home as this order can only be applied for by someone who is an associated person to the respondent (married, partnered, cohabiting with, or related to them). Although slightly harder to obtain, this is a particularly effective tool for women who are concerned for their safety and the safety of their children on a daily basis due to ongoing abuse from their partner or cohabitee.

At Grayfords, we understand the importance of empowering individuals who are facing abuse and we want to raise awareness of the legal tools listed above, which many of them do not know are available for their protection. Our solicitors are skilled at representing clients in such circumstances and we offer a completely confidential service that guides them through not only the practical elements of resolving domestic abuse – whether that be a standard non-molestation order for personal protection or an occupational order to evict the abuser from your home – but we also assist with managing their physical and mental wellbeing throughout the process. If you are facing abuse within your home and need to talk to one of our solicitors, don’t hesitate to book your free consultation today to find out more about how we can help you with your family law matter.

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