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Enforcement of law key to effectiveness

We commend the Government and Opposition for recognizing that domestic violence is, and continues to be, a problem in Barbados. We are also ready to support all their efforts in wrestling this problem to the ground.

However, the Barbadian public must be made aware of certain salient points as they relate to Government’s piloting of the Domestic Violence (Protection Orders) (Amendment) Bill 2016 in the House of Assembly yesterday, as well as to some of the responses the initiative has attracted.

A legislative framework is always necessary to give legitimacy and effectiveness to the actions of law enforcement officials. However, the introduction of new or amended laws is not the be-all and end-all of dealing with domestic violence or any other scourge that threatens social harmony and stability.

Of critical importance is enforcement and training of those responsible for that enforcement. A cursory examination of aspects of the Domestic Violence (Protection Orders) Bill 2016 not only points to some innovation, but also suggests some degree of reinvention of the wheel.

Those involved in law enforcement in Barbados would be aware that there is legislation already in existence that deals with a high percentage of matters that fall into the category of domestic violence. The Offences Against The Person Act gives the Royal Barbados Police Force the scope to deal with physical acts ranging from assault
to wounding, to wounding with intent, grievous bodily harm and grievous bodily harm with intent, among other offences.

Though we see nothing fundamentally wrong with seeking to locate definitions, procedures, responses and punishments related to domestic violence under one legislative umbrella, enforcement of these laws will be key to their effectiveness and not the introduction of seemingly “new” rules and regulations. The dilemma that has really existed in the past has not been the absence of legislation, but the lack of proper enforcement.

Minister of Social Care Steve Blackett has described the Domestic Violence (Protection Orders) (Amendment) Bill 2016 as “a watershed in the life, the sociology and the functioning of Barbados as a society”. In many ways he is quite correct –– and yet decades behind the times.

According to Mr Blackett, the act mandates officers who respond to complaints of domestic violence to complete a report and record the information in a register, and also to provide the person making the report with a copy as soon as practicable. But this is nothing new.

This has been practised for decades with requisite entries made in daily report diaries, as well as medical journals in every police station in the island.

Procedures outlined yesterday with respect to responding to victims and assisting them with seeking medical aid or retrieving personal property from homes have been practised even when Mr Blackett and members of both sides of the House were dressed in khaki uniforms at secondary schools across the island.

The legislation states that police officers can enter premises without warrant if there are reasonable grounds to suspect an emergency protection order, an interim protection order or a final protection order is being breached . . . or if there are reasonable grounds to suspect that a person on the premises has suffered, or is in imminent danger of suffering physical injury at the hands of some other person.

But truth be told, members of the Royal Barbados Police Force already have the authority to make arrests without warrant in circumstances clearly set out in the Police Act, Chapter 167. At common law there are also specific circumstances under which police officers may enter premises without warrant in pursuit of offenders or to prevent harm.

The gist of the matter is that there are legislative teeth already in existence capable of taking a huge bite out of the occurrence of domestic violence. But for reasons perhaps ranging from the lack of specialized training to ineffective enforcement and the personal choice of victims, many such domestic cases go undetected, unreported and unpunished. If that same state of affairs persists with respect to the Domestic Violence (Protection Orders) (Amendment) Bill 2016, the act in itself will be worth only the paper on which it is written.

Of course, there are innovations worthy of praise; others meriting a degree of caution. The authority given to junior police officers to issue emergency protection orders is an important addition to fighting domestic violence and must be used judiciously. But similar to those issued by the Magistrates’ Court, a protection order is simply piece of paper
and there is still a need for physical monitoring and intervention after this issuance.

Opposition MP Dale Marshall has offered some reasonable cautionary notes, but seems to have meshed his political hat with his legal one. As a lawyer, he would know that suspicion of committing a crime involves a series of actions. To suggest an individual saying he is going to buy a “spliff” as likely to be subject to arrest –– within the context of the amended legislation –– is to trivialize the amendments and to do his training a disservice.

Inchoate offences are part of the law. But attempts and conspiracies include preparation, or a series of acts designed towards commission of a crime. Mr Marshall’s political voice might have said it, but his professional tongue would surely know that to merely say “I am going to buy a spliff” is remote and far removed from an inchoate offence, and what the amended legislation is seeking to achieve with respect to attempts to inflict harm in situations of domestic violence.

We will observe the functioning of the legislation.

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