When photographs of Charles Saatchi with his hands around the neck of his wife, Nigella Lawson, appeared in a tabloid newspaper in June they shattered an illusion. We do not expect a beautiful and enviably successful TV chef married to a rich and powerful older man to be a victim of domestic violence. In this country the prevailing, but mistaken, view is that such victims are usually working-class drudges who get battered by brutish husbands, probably after a night in the pub.
Saatchi, a multi-millionaire art collector, hardly fits the stereotype of a perpetrator of domestic violence, but does this mean he has been treated differently to other men? Witnesses of the incident in a Mayfair restaurant confirmed, as did the photographs, that Saatchi appeared to be strangling Nigella and that she looked upset.
According to the criminal lawyers I have spoken to there was sufficient evidence for the police to refer the case to the Crown Prosecution Service, but instead of pursuing a court case they issued Saatchi with a caution for assault. This means that he admitted the offence but that no further action will be taken unless he reoffends.
I asked experts on domestic abuse whether Saatchi would be eligible for one of the “perpetrator programmes” designed to help men change their abusive behaviour. On the course, which is one evening a week for between 12 and 26 weeks, facilitators engage with groups of around ten men about their conduct and seek to get them to shift the blame from their victim to themselves.
Such courses may be all well and good if the behaviour in question is not criminal, but surely courts have no business diverting men who beat up women from proper punishment by the criminal justice system?
Davina James Hanman, a specialist in domestic violence and the law, said that because Saatchi had accepted only a “simple” rather than “conditional” caution he could not be made to attend a perpetrator programme, though he could choose to refer himself.
“Perpetrator programmes are not a suitable option for all abusers,” she said. “Most abusers minimise their behaviour and the harm it has caused, but those who deny it altogether are not going to make much progress.”
Neil Blacklock, development director at Respect, an organisation that delivers services for both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence, explained that before someone was accepted onto a course, they assess the likelihood of the abuser changing his behaviour. If Saatchi referred himself to a programme “he would be assessed like anyone else”, he told me.
The move towards mediation is another approach designed to avoid the courts. In April, police data for England and Wales released after a Freedom of Information request by Labour, revealed that in 2012 “community resolutions” had been used in 10,000 cases of serious violence and 2,488 cases of domestic violence. Offenders avoid a criminal record because they do not have to go to court nor do they receive a police caution, which would also appear in police records. Instead they agree to take part in restorative justice measures, which may involve apologising to or compensating their victim.
Police in England and Wales receive half a million complaints of domestic violence a year but prosecutions are sparse. Police consider it almost impossible to get such cases to court because the victim so often decides to withdraw charges against a partner, whether voluntarily or as the result of intimidation. Thus the onus usually falls entirely on the victim to press charges. And, of course, many more incidents are probably never reported at all.
Annual death rates as a result of domestic violence are remarkably constant: on average, two women die in England and Wales each week at the hands of a former or current partner. Despite the serious nature of the crime, there is little support for tougher measures to tackle the abuse of women.
The deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, showed his lack of understanding of domestic abuse during a discussion on the radio shortly after the Nigella story broke. Asked during his Call Clegg programme on LBC Radio how he would have responded had he witnessed the incident, he said: “I don’t know what happened. When you see a couple having an argument…most people, you know, just assume that the couple will resolve it themselves.”
Although he rushed out a statement to make clear that he condemned all forms of domestic violence, this was an unsurprising response. After all, Clegg leads a party that has been slow to check bad behaviour by its male politicians towards women.
The cost of mopping up the consequences of violence against women and girls was estimated by a report in 2004 for the Women and Equality Unit at £23 billion a year in England and Wales, and yet Women’s Aid, Rape Crisis and other organisations providing services for victims of sexual violence have to beg for funding.
If the government can pour resources into encouraging people to quit smoking and drink-driving, why not also into stopping violence against women? It is time to demand radical action.
The Macpherson inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence famously found evidence of “institutionalised racism” in the Metropolitan Police. We need a similar public inquiry into why victims of domestic violence are not getting sufficient protection. Sexism is rife in the police service — currently at least 169 police officers and support staff are being investigated for sex offences against women.
Perhaps now we know that even a rich and successful woman can fall victim to an abusive partner something radical will be done to stop men — whether multi-millionaire entrepreneur or working-class council tenant — from being violent towards the women they profess to love. A slap on the wrist is no substitute to being banged up behind bars.