'Every day he said he loved me'

There's no one more intimidating in the dock than your own husband. How do you persuade a battered woman to sue the man who beat her into submission? Mary Braid spends a day in Britain's first court dedicated to domestic crime
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The Independent Online

It's 2pm on Monday afternoon and a small crowd of men has formed around the new, "special" court six, on the first floor of Leeds magistrates' court. Respectable middle-aged men in suits rub shoulders with dreadlocked trendies, and Asian businessmen who look like pillars of the community. They seem a pretty disparate bunch to be charged with the same crime.

It's 2pm on Monday afternoon and a small crowd of men has formed around the new, "special" court six, on the first floor of Leeds magistrates' court. Respectable middle-aged men in suits rub shoulders with dreadlocked trendies, and Asian businessmen who look like pillars of the community. They seem a pretty disparate bunch to be charged with the same crime.

The other remarkable feature takes time to sink in. But as Britain's first dedicated domestic violence court ploughs through a depressingly long list of alleged assaults and beatings, it is surprising how many alleged female victims turn up to withdraw charges, while more have apparently already indicated to the prosecution or defence that they want cases dropped.

The same message is relayed in more than half of the 20-odd cases presented to the "cluster" court. The dreadlocked man's partner wants to retract assault allegations because it is not in the best interests of their little girl to proceed. A woman whose partner allegedly punched her in the face and broke her nose also wants to withdraw, claims a defence lawyer.

Most of the women who turn up pop into court only when their own partner is called, so the lone, middle-aged, bleached blonde with haunted eyes and hollow cheeks, sitting at the back of the court, is conspicuous. Gnawing at her nails, she listens to every case, right up to the moment when a portly, middle-aged man, with tattoos on his fists and just a hint of swagger, comes before the court. In just a few minutes he walks free, after assault charges have been dismissed for lack of evidence. As he strides for the door, the nervous blonde rises quickly and falls in behind him.

For two hours cases are dismissed, trial dates set, probation reports ordered, and bail conditions set to prevent men harassing partners and children. Sentences - generally probation and community service orders - are also dished out. In this clean court of polished wood and pink upholstered chairs, where men who have beaten women turn up in suits and ties with smooth-talking lawyers, the raw ugliness of their violence somehow gets lost.

But the court's concentration, every Monday afternoon, of domestic violence cases, once diluted over 13 other court- rooms, sharpens the focus on men's violence against women in a country where more than 100 women a year are killed by a violent partner, one in four women experiences domestic violence during her life, and tens of thousands of children grow up in homes that are saturated in violence.

If sharper focus were all that the cluster court achieved, it would be worthwhile. But it aims to offer more than that. Supported by West Yorkshire Probation Service, West Yorkshire Police, Leeds magistrates, women's groups, the Law Society and the Crime Prosecution Service, it hopes to improve a process that currently fails too many battered women. It is hoped that improvements will persuade more women to see the legal process through. Inspector Paul Dixon, the police representative in the experiment, says that the court wants to "prevent women being put in impossible situations where all they can do is withdraw".

And there are too many reasons for women not to pursue prosecution. For a start, according to Halt, the Leeds-based support agency for battered women who are pursuing court action, the voice of those women is no more than a whisper in many British courtrooms.

Unless she is a witness in an eventual trial, the battered woman is often airbrushed out of proceedings. It is rare for the Crime Prosecution Service to interview a woman before the man accused of assaulting her has gone to court. Prosecutors generally rely on police statements taken at the time of the assault - which are usually out of date, at least in terms of a woman's circumstances, by the time the case is heard. All too often, defence lawyers stand up and make statements alleging everything from reconciliation to amicable estrangement, which are not verified by the women their clients attacked. "The man has everyone running after him," says a Halt spokeswoman.

Halt also complains about misunderstandings about domestic violence that affect the way the legal system deals with it. A basic frustration is that the court is often dealing with only one alleged assault, when research shows that, on average, a battered woman has been assaulted 35 times before she calls the police.

According to Louise Hackett, of the Leeds Interagency (Domestic Violence) Project, another huge weakness is that no one currently has statutory responsibility to keep women informed of how their complaint is proceeding. In many cases, women who have been threatened by a man are pressurised by their family to drop charges. "You have to understand the dynamics of domestic violence and the control he has over her when you have an application to change bail conditions," says Hackett.

Halt, which is currently expanding with the help of National Lottery funding, is moving in to support women. One of the innovations of the cluster court is that police who attend domestic violence incidents now offer referral to Halt as a matter of course. Inspector Dixon says he hopes that a body emerges that can speak for women at the various stages before trial, so that when "Mr Smith tells a court he and his wife are back together, Mrs Smith can say Mr Smith is speaking codswallop".

The CPS is also expected to face increased pressure to proceed with convictions even when women drop complaints, if it has other witnesses and evidence, such as photographs of injuries.

Inspector Dixon supports the move. "It should be about society setting standards," he says. It is a thornier issue for women's groups, who do not want women who are at risk of further violence being pushed into action they do not want to take. However, Halt believes that widespread acceptance that the CPS will proceed even if a woman withdraws her complaint, may reduce the pressure on women to withdraw.

The Leeds court is also sending men on anti-domestic-violence courses as part of probation orders. It's another thorny issue for feminists, who do not want to support anything that shifts money from battered women to violent men. "Research is not always clear about the effectiveness of these schemes," says Hackett. "But where they do operate, it's important that they are not just about looking at anger control but force men to understand that violence against women is about controlling women."

Julie, 41, who left her husband seven months ago after 20 years of violence, says no one should underestimate the enormous pressure on women to drop complaints against violent partners. Despite being kicked, punched, sexually assaulted and throttled throughout her marriage, Julie called the police only in March this year. "I could not believe I was really calling them," she says, still amazed. The turning point seems to have been her husband's first threat to beat their teenage daughter.

Why did Julie, now so outwardly confident, put up with it for so long? "Isolation," she says simply, "and a sense of shame", adding that seven months ago she was a very different person from the one she is today. Her husband, 10 years her senior, was married when she met him. The stigma of being the other woman was just the start of the social isolation she now believes her husband engineered. Over the years most of her friends and family stopped calling, driven away by the constant sense of menace in the house. "And every day he told me he loved me," she says. But there was hell to pay if she did not reply in kind.

Though she had decided the marriage was over when she called the police - "the officer said he'd had women being carried out of their homes in boxes before" - she was often tempted to drop the legal action. Despite a bail order, her husband remained a threatening presence.

"I often felt like giving up, but Halt were brilliant. They called when they said they would and kept me aware of what was going on."

Julie's husband could afford expensive legal representation and dragged out the process for so long that eventually she settled for a reduced charge. His paltry sentence - to be bound over for a year - was an insult to two decades of abuse, but she is glad that he has a criminal record.

"I feel like a million dollars and I wonder where I have been all these years. It's as if I've survived a prison sentence. It is hard to go to the police and pursue charges, but my advice is, stick with it. Support does turn up from places you never expected."