Violent husbands face new courts

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Special courts are to be set up around Britain as part of a Government clampdown on men who beat their wives or girlfriends.

Special courts are to be set up around Britain as part of a Government clampdown on men who beat their wives or girlfriends.

Magistrates will be told to hand out the harshest possible sentences to wife-beaters while treating with scepticism claims from men that they were provoked by "nagging" partners. The dedicated courts, which could be in place as early as next year, will be introduced in response to startling new figures which show the Metropolitan Police receives one complaint of domestic violence every 60 seconds.

The Government is horrified by figures which show around 63,000 women and children in England and Wales spend at least one night in a refuge each year. One in four women will become a victim of domestic violence at some point in her life while half of all female homicide victims in 1997 were killed by their current or former partner.

But the Home Office decision to target violent men who beat their partners was thrown into question last night following research by two leading criminologists which finds that prosecuting wife-beaters may actually be counter-productive. The study, to be published by the Nuffield Foundation, will argue that dragging violent men through the courts can simply provoke further attacks.

Last night, however, the Home Office minister Paul Boateng dismissed the study as "misguided". He told the Independent on Sunday that a pilot scheme running a dedicated domestic violence court in Leeds had been a huge success, adding: "We are looking at rolling it out nationally."

The courts are staffed by magistrates, prosecutors, social services and women's groups who are experienced in dealing with domestic violence cases. Until recently, the police attitude to "domestics" was to turn a blind eye, while magistrates courts often handed out lenient sentences and refused to take the matter seriously.

The court process will be sped up to prevent men returning home while awaiting trial. Back-up provided by health workers and social services will give refuge to battered women and their children. Mr Boateng said: "These men are motivated by hatred of women and our message to them is 'enough is enough'."

He will reiterate those remarks in a speech today at a specially convened conference on domestic violence. "We want it clearly understood that domestic violence is criminal and we will have no tolerance of crime," Mr Boateng will say.

The Nuffield findings, however, based on interviews with victims of domestic violence, discovered women had little faith in the criminal justice system and often did not want their partner prosecuted.

One of its authors, Carolyn Hoyle, a lecturer in criminology at the University of Oxford Centre for Criminological Research, said: "Obviously, if a man rapes a woman or slashes her throat, he should be locked up. But the majority of prosecutions are conditional discharges or fines, which means the woman ends up paying.

"Arrest and prosecution can provoke further attack or retribution. We have to get the women to end the relationship."