Exclusive: The pandemic made it easier to serve restraining orders because of a relaxation in the rules — but experts say courts are going ‘backwards’ since lockdown started easing
Domestic abuse victims are being placed at risk by an “outdated” system in which some restraining orders are not being served, experts have warned.
Figures from the National Centre for Domestic Violence, seen by The Independent, reveal that up to 13 per cent of orders issued through civil courts were not served on perpetrators in 2019.
Longstanding rules require so-called ‘non-molestation orders’ to be served to abusive partners in person — an often dangerous task usually undertaken by former police officers working for the courts.
A temporary relaxation during the pandemic allowed courts to use phone, WhatsApp or email, leading to a dramatic improvement. The proportion of unserved or undelivered orders fell from 1,093 out of of 8,364 in 2019 (13 per cent) to 726 out of 13,038 in 2020 (5 per cent).
But Mark Groves, chief executive of the National Centre for Domestic Violence, says the end of lockdown means victims are being told orders must once again be personally served.
“They are wanting to go back to the old way,” he told The Independent. “But you can serve them perfectly well by electronic methods. We have seen over the last year, it works. What I don’t want to do is go backwards.”
Non-molestation orders, which can last up to lifetime, often restrict where abusers can go or who they can approach, as well as preventing a partner or ex from using or threatening violence against a victim or their child.
Mr Groves, whose organisation provides free emergency injunctions to abuse survivors, welcomed the fact that more orders had been correctly served during during the temporary change in rules.
As well as serving orders more quickly, employees have been able to talk to perpetrators on the phone to explain the restriction, he said.
“It has made our job easier,” he said. “It is much faster to get the job done. It is giving the victims protection instantly. When we serve electronically it is almost instant rather than days.”
Courts are “hampered with outdated guidelines from the Family Justice Council,” he said. “Their guidelines were written in 2011 and need updating. Their guidance is to serve the orders personally.”
He said those serving court orders in person were often subjected to threats or acts of violence.
“Somebody had a beer bottle hurled at his car,” he said. “It smashed his rear window. Sometimes ex-police officers don’t want to serve the order as they know the person.”
Paul Rumsey, who has been serving such orders for 14 years, told The Independent domestic abusers sometimes take their frustration out on the person who has handed the order to them.
He added: “I’ve had people try to run me down my car. I’ve been threatened quite a lot of times with knives.
“I am more scared after the event than before. To think back on what you have been through and what could have happened. Some slam the phone down. Some say ‘I’m going to find you and find out where you live’.”
Mr Rumsey, an ex-police officer from Kent, added: “It is like throwing a grenade into a house. You throw it in there and walk away. Once you have served papers, I always phone the victim to tell them the papers have been served. So they are aware of what could and what could not happen.”
He said his role had got much easier since the pandemic hit and he could serve orders electronically – adding this method is also preferable as it provides a paper trail of evidence if the abuser decides to falsely claim he was never alerted to the order.
Mr Ramsey said: “Without disrespecting them, judges live in the past a bit. Personal service is not the best way to do it. We have moved on. Life is not like that anymore. The electronic age is here. There is no danger in that. You are not facing somebody. It is so much easier.”
Many domestic abuse victims take action against abusers through the civil courts rather than the criminal system because it is a less distressing and protracted process.
Sharon Bryan, a domestic abuse survivor who is in a senior role at the National Centre for Domestic Violence, said: “When you do it personally, the perpetrator can evade that service. They can not answer the door if they have any inkling of what is going to happen.“
Domestic abuse has increased in the pandemic and helplines have recorded a steep surge in victims reaching out for support. Last May, it emerged calls to the UK’s national domestic abuse helpline had risen by 66 per cent and visits to its website soared by 950 per cent since the country went into a national lockdown.
Responding to criticism levied against them, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said: “Courts still have the same discretion as they did last year. The measures were part of a pilot that is still running, and the changes will be made permanent this year.”
But Mr Groves argued the pilot scheme does not go far enough because it does not explicitly say serving court orders electronically is acceptable or explain how it should be carried out.
He added: “The wording in the pilot scheme is vague and we were never informed of a pilot scheme and still haven’t been despite working with the Ministry of Justice.
“It is in the hands of judges whether or not they accept orders being served electronically on each individual case. It is difficult at the moment as everything is decided on a case-by-case basis and judges have such different attitudes on what they think is an appropriate way of serving the order.”
Anyone who requires help or support can contact the National Domestic Abuse Helpline which is open 24/7 365 days per year on 0808 2000 247 or via their website nationaldahelpline.org.uk