By: Holly Nesbitt
In the wake of the murder of Sarah Everard and the sentencing of the man who killed her, there was widespread debate across the United Kingdom about the safety of women. There was a particular focus on the role that the police, government, and law play in protecting women and girls from harm. With reference to the case, this article examines if our laws and institutions go far enough to protect women. It will highlight the issues brought to the foreground by Everard’s murder, as well as domestic violence, upskirting and revenge porn across the UK, with an additional focus on Northern Ireland. This article concludes that while recent advancements that serve to protect women and girls are welcome, there is still much work to be done to ensure the reduction of gender-based violence.
The Murder of Sarah Everard & Trust in the Police
On the evening of 3rd March 2021, at around 9.35pm, Sarah Everard was falsely arrested by serving Metropolitan Police Officer Wayne Couzens, under the pretense of breaching COVID-19 guidelines. In the subsequent hours and days, he raped and strangled her, before burning her body. In the months that ensued, public outrage at the incident became front-page news. Her killer was sentenced to a rare whole life order, in recognition that he had used his position of authority to kill her. Her murder brought forth not only a renewed sense of fear and fury at what had happened to her, but also a deep sense of mistrust towards the institutions designed to protect women like her.
Specifics about the case were alarming in themselves and called into question the practices of the police. In the wake of her murderer’s sentencing, the Metropolitan Police examined its policies in response to the erosion of trust caused by such abuses of power. However, it arose that Sarah’s killer had been reported to the police for indecent exposure days before her disappearance. Moreover, when he pleaded guilty, it was revealed he had been reported to the police in 2015 for the same crime: indecent exposure. None of these reports were properly investigated by police at the time. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick claimed that Couzens was an ‘occasional bad‘un’ – however statistics reveal evidence of a police culture badly in need of regulation and reform. Between 2019 and 2021, more than 125 women reported domestic abuse at the hands of partners who were police officers to the Centre for Women’s Justice. Between 2012 and 2018, 600 sexual misconduct allegations were made against Metropolitan Police officers. Serious internal changes are needed if trust is to be restored.
The reaction of the police to Everard’s death also came under intense criticism. Commissioner Cressida Dick made an address after Everard’s remains were found, in which she said, “it is, thankfully, incredibly rare for a woman to be abducted from our streets”. In response, Jess Phillips – a Labour MP and Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence and Safeguarding – noted that it is difficult to describe extreme violence against women as “rare” when six other women and a little girl were reportedly killed by men in the week after Everard’s disappearance.
The calls after Everard’s murder for women to be more careful, to become more ‘street savvy’, to check police officer’s credentials (which puts them at risk of being charged with resisting arrest), do nothing for real reform and put the burden on women’s behavior rather than that of perpetrators. Despite suggestions from the media, the problem does not lie with individual women. Everard ‘had taken every precaution we wrongly expect of women and girls’. She went home at ‘a reasonable hour and traveled the long way, along well-lit London Streets’. She called her partner as she was walking. She was still murdered. If women are to feel protected by our institutions, then there must be change. True, lasting, and meaningful change requires what Brown and Horvath call a ‘whole system approach’ which would include challenging widely held myths about rape and examining the limitations of the legal system in supporting victims as their own witnesses through a criminal trial. The problem lies with the institutions and laws that are supposed to protect women. Our laws do not go far enough and as Everard’s death demonstrates, our institutions, quite frankly, are not doing enough.
It is important to preface this section by acknowledging that men are victims of domestic violence, and men deserve to be protected from domestic violence by our laws and institutions. However, the same measures that would protect men would also protect women. Furthermore, domestic violence is also what Women’s Aid refer to as a ‘gendered crime’. From March 2017 to March 2019, 77% of domestic homicide victims were female and in those cases 96% of the suspects were male. Women experience higher rates of repeated victimisation. Women are more likely to be subject to coercive control. Women are more likely to experience severe injury or death as a result of domestic violence. It is women who are disproportionately at risk, and women who are disproportionately in need of protection.
Incidents of domestic violence reached an all-time high during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the PSNI receiving 3,755 calls relating to domestic abuse in two months following the March 2020 lockdown. This has shone a spotlight on the role of the police, the government, and the criminal justice system in taking action to stop it.
Progress has been made recently, and the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act (Northern Ireland) 2021 was a welcome change. However, there was no specific criminal law offence of domestic abuse in Northern Ireland prior to its enactment, and incidents were prosecuted under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. This allowed physical violence to be prosecuted, but more recently it has been recognised that other forms of abuse, such as coercive control, can be just as ‘damaging’. As Dr Ronagh McGuigg highlights, in R v D the husband of a victim of domestic abuse who had committed suicide was prosecuted for unlawful act manslaughter but acquitted on the basis that the scope of ‘bodily harm’ was limited to recognizable psychiatric illness, which could not be determined . Coercive control was criminalised in England (2015), Scotland (2018) and in the Republic of Ireland (2018), but in Northern Ireland legislation was stalled due to the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly from January 2017 until January 2020, delaying protection for potential victims.
The creation of this new offence cannot solely ‘improve criminal justice responses to domestic abuse’ and true success must be based on ‘education of the public and specialist training of criminal justice personnel’.
McGuigg further notes how in April 2021, a follow up review from a 2019 report by the Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland was published on the handling of domestic abuse cases by the criminal justice system. Seven recommendations were made in the original report, with the review finding that only one of these has been achieved, with four partially achieved and one not implemented. The CJINI Chief inspector Jacqui Durkin said she was ‘disappointed with the pace of progress’, and that key recommendations — including the implementation of an advocacy service to assist victims of domestic violence, and create regional domestic violence and abuse courts ‘remained outstanding’. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK without a specific strategy to protect women and girls from violence. It is abundantly clear that ‘further sustained efforts’ will be needed over the coming years to address the extreme domestic violence in Northern Ireland.
England and Wales
The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 (which only applies to England and Wales) has been praised for its significant changes to the law. It created the first statutory definition of domestic abuse, extended the scope of coercive and controlling behaviour, and outlawed the rough sex defense – offering greater protection for women, where cases may have been previously dismissed. It is no longer a defense ‘that the victim consented to the infliction of the serious harm for the purpose of obtaining sexual gratification’. While it has been illegal to disclose private sexual photographs and films with intent to cause distress since 2015, the 2021 legislation amends the law to include ‘threats to disclose’. This reform was applauded by organisations including the UK’s Revenge Porn Helpline. They noted that 20% of their cases feature such threats, and 75% of victims of such threats are female. The Act also places a duty on local authorities to provide support to victims of domestic abuse and increases the protections available for affected families.
However, the Act has also come under criticism. Several reforms were not included in the final Act (including monitoring of stalking offenders under a police database) and ‘headline amendments’ were thinned out. The Act does not offer as many protections as anticipated and therefore has a less direct impact on ‘substantive criminal law’. It is clear that the Act is a watered-down, weakened version of its original form, but perhaps some of the reforms that were removed will make their way into other legislation or be implemented by new policy directives.
Upskirting and Revenge Porn
In the summer of 2017, twenty-five-year-old Gina Martin was attending the BST Festival in Hyde Park when she ‘caught sight of a man’s phone screen’– showing a woman’s underwear and upper thighs – before soon realizing it was her own body that had been photographed without her knowledge or consent. She took his phone to the police, who told her the act was not illegal, and therefore they could not take any action against him. Determined, she started a lengthy public campaign which ultimately culminated in the passage of The Voyeurism (Offences) Act 2019. The Act sought to ‘fill a loophole’ in the law and to protect the ‘sexual autonomy and inherent dignity of women’.
Criticism from Alisdair Gillespie, writing in The Modern Law Review, argues that the Act is welcomed, since it has led politicians and wider society to discuss the issue of upskirting. He cites that, in particular, the ‘uproar’ that greeted the blocking of the original Private Member’s Bill by Christopher Chope MP – showed a political will to ensure that women were protected from men who ‘claimed the right to look up a skirt ‘for fun’’. What Gillespie notes is significant about Martin’s story, is that the police were wrong - the offence of outraging public decency was applicable at the time, and the suspect should have been arrested at the time. He observes that what Gina Martin’s experience shows is that some police officers ‘do not understand the law’. Until this lack of understanding is addressed specialist training for judges and prosecutors is meaningless, and legislation to protect against issues like upskirting will be pointless.
Furthermore, Northern Ireland has been later than its neighbouring jurisdictions in criminalising upskirting, however the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Bill, which at the time of writing has reached its consideration stage, will outlaw upskirting as well as tackling adults masquerading as children online, a welcome development, but disappointingly as usual, Northern Ireland is lagging behind.
As previously mentioned, the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 created the offence of ‘disclosing private sexual photographs and films with intent to cause distress’ - the criminalisation of so called ‘revenge porn’. Revenge porn is another crime which disproportionately affects women – with between 60-95% of victims being female. In the first year following the criminalisation of revenge porn, over two hundred cases were prosecuted in England and Wales. Furthermore, organisations supporting survivors of domestic abuse report the increasing use of technology, and specifically distribution and threats to distribute private sexual images, as part and parcel of the process of coercive control and domestic abuse.
The Law Commission have outlined proposals for the law to go further to protect victims, including automatic anonymity for all victims of intimate image abuse, and a new framework of offences better focused on this form of criminal conduct and the harm it causes. Professor Penney Lewis, Criminal Law Commissioner, has said that ‘for victims, having their intimate images taken or shared without consent can be an incredibly damaging and humiliating experience’ and that ‘the law does not adequately protect victims from this behaviour and reform is clearly needed’. In Northern Ireland, revenge porn was criminalised in 2016 however there has been criticism as to the seriousness of the offence and why it is not treated as a sexually related crime which would afford victims automatic autonomy. Across the UK, it is clear that government must put in place measures to protect and support victims further.
Advancements have been made in recent years, Brown and Horvath note that in addition to legislative advancements, there have been improvements with changes in the law around issues of consent, the appointment of Independent Sexual Violence Advisors, introduction of specially trained prosecutors and special measures to protect vulnerable witnesses in court however there is still much room for improvement. As Jess Philips MP has observed, the UK government refuses ‘to categorise violence against women and girls as “serious violence” as they do with youth violence, […] gangs or terrorism’. Until those in power take tangible action to reduce gender-based violence, the unacceptable status quo will continue.
In Northern Ireland specifically, it is noteworthy that measures such as the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act (Northern Ireland) 2021 were delayed by the last collapse of the Assembly. As we face the unnervingly familiar political uncertainty regarding future of our devolved government, it is important to remember that when our institutions collapse, potential victims are at the mercy of a grossly deficient ‘legislative response’. Meaningful, local, and responsive policy decisions cannot be taken if there is no government to take them.
While the issue of how to solve these issues of gender-based violence is under debate, at the very least there is, as Andrea Simon director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition puts it, ‘some recognition of the epidemic of violence against women and girls’ but that the ‘extent to which transformative changes to the criminal justice system will materialize is yet to be seen’.
 BBC News, ‘Sarah Everard Murder: ‘Our lives will never be the same again’ (BBC News, 29 September 2022) <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-58739421> accessed 02 February 2022.  Chris Beighton and Zahra Kemiche, ‘(Un)trustworthy organisations? Implications of the Sarah Everard murder case’ (Canterbury Christ Church University Blogs, 5 Oct 2021) <https://blogs.canterbury.ac.uk/expertcomment/untrustworthy-organisations-implications-of-the-sarah-everard-murder-case/> accessed 04 February 2022.  Laura Bates, ‘After Sarah Everard: What the case revealed about violence against women’ (The New Statesman, 14 July 2021) <https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/feminism/2021/07/after-sarah-everard-what-case-revealed-about-violence-against-women> accessed 03 February 2022.  Ibid.  Minnie Stephenson, ‘More than 100 women accuse police officers of domestic abuse, alleging ‘boys club’ culture’ (Channel 4 News, 18 May 2021) <https://www.channel4.com/news/more-than-100-women-accuse-police-officers-of-domestic-abuse-alleging-boys-club-culture> accessed 06 February 2022.  Bates (n 3).  Ibid.  Bates (n 3).  Jennifer Brown and Miranda Horvath, ‘Sarah Everard: The tipping point to take violence against women and girls seriously’, (British Politics and Policy at LSE 6 Oct 2021) <http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/112889/1/politicsandpolicy_sarah_everard.pdf> accessed 04 February 2022.  Bates (n 2).  Kate Manne, ‘What Sarah Everard’s Murder Illuminates – And Might Obscure’ (The Atlantic, 17 March 2021) <https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/03/what-sarah-everards-murder-illuminatesand-might-obscure/618302/> accessed 7 February 2022.  Ibid.  Brown and Horvath (n 9).  Women’s Aid, ‘Domestic abuse is a gendered crime’ (Women’s Aid 2021) <https://www.womensaid.org.uk/information-support/what-is-domestic-abuse/domestic-abuse-is-a-gendered-crime/> accessed 02 February 2022.  Sylvia Walby and Jude Towers, ‘Measuring violence to end violence: mainstreaming gender’ (2017) 1 Journal of Gender-Based Violence 11.  Russell Dobash and R. Emerson Dobash, ‘Women’s violence to men in intimate relationships. Working on a Puzzle’ (2004) 44 British Journal of Criminology 324.  Sylvia Walby and Jonathan Allen, ‘Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Stalking: Findings from the British Crime Survey’ (Home Office Research Study, 2004) < http://nomsintranet.org.uk/roh/official-documents/HomeOfficeResearchStudy276.pdf > accessed 07 February 2022.  Amnesty International UK ‘Northern Ireland: With Domestic Violence at All-Time High, Funding Urgently Needed for Frontline Groups’ (Amnesty, 18 May 2020) <https://www.amnesty.org.uk/press-releases/northern-ireland-domestic-violence-all-time-high-funding-urgently-needed-frontline> accessed 05 February 2022.  Ibid.  Ronagh McGuigg, ‘Northern Ireland’s New Domestic Abuse Offence’ (QPOl 19 May 2021) <http://qpol.qub.ac.uk/northern-irelands-new-domestic-abuse-offence/> accessed 04 February 2022.  Ibid.  (2006) 2 Cr App R 24.  Ronagh McQuigg, ‘Northern Ireland’s New Offence of Domestic Abuse’  Statute Law Review 1.  Serious Crime Act 2015, s 76.  Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018, s 1  Domestic Violence Act 2018, s39 (Republic of Ireland)  Victoria Bettinson and Jeremy Robson ‘Prosecuting Coercive Control: Reforming Storytelling in the Courtroom’ (2020) 12 Criminal Law Review 1107.  Ibid.  McGuigg (n 20).  Ibid.  Jacqui Durkin, ‘No Excuse: A Thematic Inspection of the Handling of Domestic Violence and Abuse Cases by the Criminal Justice System in Northern Ireland’ (Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland April 2021) <https://www.cjini.org/getattachment/48e855ca-cd40-4283-83c2-720cf49b5c94/report.aspx> accessed 04 February 2022.  Jayne McCormack, ‘Domestic abuse strategy needs ‘combined effort’’ (BBC News, 10 January 2022) <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-59938799> accessed 06 February 2022.  Nick Dent, ‘Domestic Abuse Act 2021: An Overview’, (Kingsley Napley, 19 May 2021) < https://www.kingsleynapley.co.uk/insights/blogs/criminal-law-blog/domestic-abuse-act-2021-an-overview > accessed 08 February 2022.  Ibid.  The Domestic Abuse Act 2021, s 71  Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, s 33.  Revenge Porn Helpline, ‘Threats to share intimate images is now a crime’ (Revenge Porn Helpline 29 April 2021) <https://revengepornhelpline.org.uk/news/threats-to-share-intimate-images-is-now-a-crime/> accessed 05 February 2022.  Bethany Gray, ‘The Domestic Abuse Act 2021’ (Johnson Astills, 17 May 2021) <https://www.johnsonastills.com/site/blog/domestic-violence-abuse-blog/the-domestic-abuse-act-2021> accessed 5 February 2022.  BBC News, ‘Domestic Abuse Bill to become law after talker plans defeated’ (BBC News, 28 April 2021) <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-56905883> accessed 06 October 2021.  Dent (n 34).  Dent (n 34).  Mar Campdepadros, Meghan Spencer, Sally Biddall, ‘How changing the law in spite of rape threats and abuse has left Gina Martin optimistic about activism’ (The Evening Standard 20 February 2020) <https://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/london-life/i-m-a-londoner-gina-martin-upskirting-activist-campaign-abuse-optimistic-a4366451.html> accessed 3 February 2022.  Ibid.  Alisdair Gillespie, ‘Tackling Voyeurism: Is The Voyeurism (Offences) Act 2019 A Wasted Opportunity?’ (2019) 82 The Modern Law Review 1107.  Ibid.  Gillespie (n 44).  Gillespie (n 44).  Gillespie (n 44).  Rebecca Black, ‘Upskirting and downblousing to become offences under new legislation’ (Belfast Telegraph, 13 September 2021) <https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/upskirting-and-downblousing-to-become-offences-under-new-legislation-40846992.html> accessed 07 February 2022.  Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, s 33.  Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, s 33(1)  Julia Davidson, et al. ‘Adult Online Hate, Harassment and Abuse: A Rapid Evidence Assessment’, (UK Council for Internet Safety, June 2019) <https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/811450/Adult_Online_Harms_Report_2019.pdf > accessed 07 February 2022.  Crown Prosecution Service ‘Violence against women and girls: Crime report 2015–2016’ (Crown Prosecution Service, June 2016) <http:// www.cps.gov.uk/publications/equality/vaw/> Accessed 06 February 2022.  Clare McGlynn, Erika Rackley, and Ruth Houghton, ‘Beyond ‘Revenge Porn’: The continuum of Image-Based Sexual Abuse’ (2017) 25 Feminist Legal Studies 25.  Law Commission, ‘Reforms to laws around intimate image abuse proposed to better protect victims’ (Law Commission, 26 February 2021) < https://www.lawcom.gov.uk/reforms-to-laws-around-intimate-image-abuse-proposed-to-better-protect-victims/ > accessed 07 February 2022.  Ibid.  Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2016, s 51.  ‘Naomi Long to explore anonymity for revenge porn victims’ (The Impartial Reporter, 25 February 2021) < https://www.impartialreporter.com/news/19117279.naomi-long-explore-anonymity-revenge-porn-victims/ > accessed 07 February 2022.  Brown and Horvath (n 9).  Jess Philips, ‘Enough is enough – those 80 women deserved better’, The Northern Echo (2 October 2021) <https://www.thenorthernecho.co.uk/news/19620587.jess-phillips-enough-enough---80-women-deserved-better/> accessed 02 February 2022.  McGuigg (n 20).  Bates (n 3).
Image Credit: Getty