Does the law protect victims of domestic violence?
One of the most frequently discussed stories on American television this week surrounded the NFL player Ray Rice and the revelation that during an argument in an elevator, he viciously punched his then-fiancée in the face and rendered her unconscious, before dragging her like a rag doll from the elevator.
When the story broke, the only video of the incident showed the woman being dragged from the elevator, and there were allegations that she was drunk.
On those facts, all Rice received was a two-game suspension from the NFL. No criminal charges were laid, and there was no report that a restraining order was sought by his fiancée. It was only after a second video surfaced last week showing the actual punch being thrown that the NFL took the step to suspend Rice indefinitely from the league. What has been utterly mind-boggling about the incident is the woman's unstinting defence of her man and her subsequent marriage to him.
Regrettably, the Rice incident is not an uncommon one - neither in nature nor in relation to the response from the victim. Many victims either do not know what legal options are open to them to seek protection or choose not to avail themselves of those options for various reasons. For example, many Jamaicans still do not know that they can obtain protection and occupation orders through the Resident Magistrate and Family Courts if they are victims of domestic violence. But still, others are either embarrassed to make reports of abuse or believe that they are unlikely to get justice.
In Jamaica, the Domestic Violence Act can be relied upon by men, women or children who are victims of domestic violence. Under that act, applications may be made for what are commonly referred to as 'restraining orders', but are properly called occupation or protection orders, to protect them. The applicant may be:
a spouse, including a common-law spouse and a former spouse,
persons who are involved in visiting relationships,
a child or dependant residing in the home,
a parent of that child or dependant,
a social worker,
a constable or other persons living in the household, with the permission of the court.
The restraining orders may prevent the perpetrator from entering or remaining in the house, workplace, school or in the area in which the house, place of work or school is located or molesting, waylaying, making persistent telephone calls or using abusive telephone calls.
threat and verbal abuse
For the person who believes that the act of violence must have already been committed before the application for a restraining order is made, it should be noted that a threat and verbal abuse are sufficient. Also, for persons who believe that the fact that they do not own the home in which the violence occurs, prevents them from having the perpetrator removed from that home, this is not so. The perpetrator can be ordered to vacate rented premises or even the home that he or she owns.
It is important to note that proceedings to obtain restraining orders are not criminal proceedings and are, therefore, not heard in open court. For that reason, the hearings are not open to members of the public and they will certainly not be reported in the media. However, the strength of the restraining orders lies in the fact that breach by the perpetrator could land him in prison.
There is room for improving the current legislation, and in next week's article, I will examine some of the suggested changes as well as the best practices from other jurisdictions.