Jail all men who beat women, says top judge

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Men who hit women should be given immediate custodial sentences, one of the country's most senior female judges said yesterday. Valerie Pearlman said the time had come to stop making excuses for crimes of domestic violence.

She told the annual conference of magistrates in London: "The best way of dealing with it is an immediate custodial sentence. It may have an impact on the family, but it seems to me this is the only way to bring home to the defendants what they have done.''

Magistrates were told that 25 per cent of violent crime was domestic violence but only one in three attacks resulting in injury was reported. Home Office research shows that on average victims are assaulted 35 times before they seek help.

Judge Pearlman, a circuit judge in the Family Division, said: "No court should have the unspoken view that it's 'only a domestic'.'' The judge said the judiciary or the magistracy should not make the sort of excuses she said she had heard so many times. These had included she said, "It's a case of 50/50", "It's only a slap", and "'It was only a grab''. But she said a worse excuse was where judges said they did not know whether to "blame him or her''.

Judge Pearlman said more use should be made of video link evidence and other procedural measures which excused witnesses from attending court. She urged magistrates to use wider bail conditions to stop defendants interfering with victims before the conclusion of a trial and said magistrates should make sure defendants were not using contact orders with their children to gain access to the victim

"The worst case is the withdrawal of a complaint,'' she said. The judge also urged the courts to treat the offence more seriously. "I regard domestic violence as an aggravating feature of an offence of assault.''

A spokeswoman for the Home Office said courts would impose a custodial sentence where the offence was "so serious that no other form of disposal was justified'' but the substantive offence of assault or wounding would determine what kind of punishment was given. In the past few years some courts have been reluctant to send fathers to prison for domestic violence offences, knowing they will be depriving a family of its only breadwinner.

* A motion to call on the Government to review the laws of prostitution was overwhelmingly carried by the magistrates. Roger Farrington, who proposed the motion, said he was in favour of a liberalisation of laws which he said were "ineffective and unenforceable''.

The Government is expected to respond through the Home Office's criminal justice council. The recommendation could lead to licensed brothels.