Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill - Report (5th Day) – in the House of Lords at 9:30 pm on 12th January 2022.
Moved by Lord Wolfson of Tredegar
107B: After Clause 46, insert the following new Clause—“Time limit for prosecution of common assault or battery in domestic abuse casesAfter section 39 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 insert—“39A Time limit for prosecution of common assault or battery in domestic abuse cases(1) This section applies to proceedings for an offence of common assault or battery where—(a) the alleged behaviour of the accused amounts to domestic abuse, and(b) the condition in subsection (2) or (3) is met.(2) The condition in this subsection is that—(a) the complainant has made a witness statement with a view to its possible admission as evidence in the proceedings, and(b) the complainant has provided the statement to—(i) a constable of a police force, or(ii) a person authorised by a constable of a police force to receive the statement.(3) The condition in this subsection is that—(a) the complainant has been interviewed by—(i) a constable of a police force, or(ii) a person authorised by a constable of a police force to interview the complainant, and(b) a video recording of the interview has been made with a view to its possible admission as the complainant’s evidence in chief in the proceedings.(4) Proceedings to which this section applies may be commenced at any time which is both—(a) within two years from the date of the offence to which the proceedings relate, and(b) within six months from the first date on which either of the conditions in subsection (2) or (3) was met.(5) This section has effect despite section 127(1) of the Magistrates’ Court Act 1980 (limitation of time).(6) In this section—“domestic abuse” has the meaning given by section 1 of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021;“police force” has the meaning given by section 3(3) of the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985;“video recording” has the meaning given by section 63(1) of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999;“witness statement” means a written statement that satisfies the conditions in section 9(2)(a) and (b) of the Criminal Justice Act 1967.(7) This section does not apply in relation to an offence committed before the coming into force of section (Time limit for prosecution of common assault or battery in domestic abuse cases) of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022.””Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment extends the time limit for commencing proceedings for an offence of common assault or battery in certain cases where the alleged behaviour of the accused amounts to domestic abuse.
My Lords, this government amendment meets a commitment to bring forward proposals on Report to address concerns that the time limit for bringing prosecutions for common assault or battery involving domestic abuse is unfairly short. I am very grateful that, joining my name on this amendment are the names of the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, and the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross.
In response to the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lady Newlove in Committee, we acknowledged that such cases are disproportionately likely to time out. I am pleased now to present our solution to this problem—in the form of government Amendment 107B —to the House.
The position currently is that a prosecution for common assault or battery must be brought within six months of an offence occurring, in accordance with Section 127 of the Magistrates’ Court Act 1980—I underline at the outset that this is the lowest level of criminal offence in this area; I am not diminishing or demeaning it, but I underline it because the more serious offences do not suffer from this time problem. However, we know that, for obvious reasons, victims of domestic abuse may understandably take some time to report an offence. That can leave the police and the CPS with little time—sometimes no time at all—to conduct an investigation and prosecute the offender. As I say, sometimes the time limit has expired even before the victim approaches the police.
This amendment introduces a new Section 39A into the Criminal Justice Act 1988, which will extend the time limit for commencing a prosecution for the offence of common assault or battery when it arises out of domestic abuse. The amendment provides that the time limit is still six months, but it does not run from the date of the offence, it runs from when it is formally reported to the police through either a witness statement or a video recording made with a view to its use as evidence. There is an overall time limit of two years from the offence. We are confident that this provides the best protection for victims of this abhorrent crime. The reason that it applies only from the witness statement or videoed interview is that, sometimes, a victim can go to the police, have a chat with the desk sergeant and then, for understandable reasons, say, “I’ll come back; I’ll think about it.” If the clock were to start then, we might again have problems of timing out. We have thought about this quite carefully and we think that the witness statement or video recording is the better time to start.
I am therefore delighted to present this as a solution to a problem that I think requires a solution. It will make a real difference to victims of domestic abuse and will stop perpetrators, in effect, hiding behind an unfair limitation on victims’ ability to seek justice. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for what he has just said and for the actions he has taken. I thank his colleague in the other place, Victoria Atkins, for having given the original commitment, and I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Stewart, who responded in a very positive way to the amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, in Committee.
I also particularly thank Yvette Cooper in another place because the beginning of this was when one of her constituents came to her who had suffered an assault and had been timed out. That was really the first time that Yvette Cooper had come across this; it was one of those problems that was hidden in plain sight. It took a series of freedom of information requests to try to get the necessary information to understand the nature of the problem and, indeed, the scale of it. If this was not a government amendment and we were still trying to persuade the Government, I would have stood up to say, “I do not rise to speak briefly, because I am going to make 12,982 different points”, as that is the number of cases of alleged common assault that were timed out within a five-year period. That was revealed by the freedom of information requests, albeit only 70% of the police forces that received the FoI requests actually bothered to respond, so that number is probably an underestimate.
I am extremely grateful for this. The noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, would have been here, but she was sitting at the back earlier, doing her impression of the young noble Lord, Lord Young of Graffham, in his usual place, with a large cushion behind her, because her back has been giving her a lot of problems, so she has gone back to her hotel to rest it. On her behalf, I pay tribute to the work that she has done and thank her for having put it forward in Committee.
In a very helpful online call with the Minister, in which he explained what the Government were intending to do, we discussed how it is one thing to have laws, and laws which are well intended, but laws which are well intended, even forensic, are of little use if they are not applied properly and understood effectively. The issue we must focus on is when the police start responding in a different way to some of these allegations of assault. The ability to understand the exact nature of what is required and the ability to move very quickly to get it into a form where it is prosecutable within the six-month time limit is extremely important. I thank the Minister and the Government for this amendment, but can the Minister ensure that the combination of the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office, the College of Policing and the National Police Chiefs’ Council will keep a really close eye on the enactment of this new legislation, to ensure that what we hope and intend should happen is happening, and that if it is not proceeding as we hoped and intended, to keep that under review and, if necessary, adjust it? Again, I thank the Government very much for bringing this amendment forward.
My Lords, we add our thanks to the Minister to those of the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, for his approach to changing the time limit for common assault prosecutions in the context of domestic abuse, and for engaging with us on this and other issues over the last few weeks.
It is clearly a sensible compromise for the six-month time limit to start from the first formal step in criminal proceedings of taking a witness statement or a formal recorded interview. We understand the reason for retaining the overall time limit of two years. It is a compromise in these cases between the need for finality and recognition that it frequently takes some time for victims—generally women in these cases—to report assaults formally, even though, as the noble Lord said, they may have some sort of informal interaction with the police at an earlier stage. We warmly support this amendment and thank the Government for coming to this view.
My Lords, I was sitting in the City of Westminster magistrates’ court yesterday with our Bench chairman, Jane Smith, who was aware of this government concession. We had a very constructive discussion about how welcome it was. In Westminster magistrates’ court we have a specialist DA court, which is not that common among magistrates’ courts. While the noble Lord, Lord Russell, described the problem cleverly—in the best sense; I mean that as I say it—as being hidden in plain sight, it is a problem that we see regularly in that court. It shows that when the Government listen and move quickly, that does get wider recognition. This was certainly recognised and appreciated by my Bench chairman.
My Lords, I am very grateful for the support that the amendment has received across the House. This ought to be a cross-party issue and I am very pleased that it has been. I repeat my thanks to all those who worked with me and my ministerial colleagues to get this amendment before the House this evening. As it is a cross-party matter, it is quite right for me also to thank Yvette Cooper in the other place, who did a lot of work on this issue. Sometimes parties do not matter; it is about the work that we do. I thank her for getting the ball rolling on this very important issue.
We will keep the matter under review, as we do with all legislation, and certainly for something such as this. Again, I do not want to take the House’s time, although this is an important topic. I instead invite the House to join me in supporting the amendment.
Amendment 107B agreed.
Amendments 107C to 109 not moved.