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Violent offences legislation set for reform

Creating a specific offence of domestic violence is one option included in a consultation on reforming legislation dating back more than 150 years.

The Law Commission, which reviews aspects of the law and makes recommendations for changes to ensure legislation is as fair, simple, modern and cost-effective as possible, has launched a consultation on whether – and how – the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 should be reformed.

There are almost 200,000 prosecutions each year under the Act, which is drafted in obscure language, refers to concepts no longer recognised in law such as “felony” and “misdemeanour” and includes obsolete offences such as impeding escape from a shipwreck. There have been previous unsuccessful attempts to reform the Act, with draft Bills produced in 1993 and 1998.

The Act covers numerous offences, including actual bodily harm and grievous bodily harm, but these are not all clearly classified in order of seriousness or clearly defined, which the commission says can be confusing for the courts, defendants and victims.

In the consultation, launched on 12 November, the commission will examine whether the draft 1998 Bill could provide the basis for new, modern legislation and seeks views on whether any future reform should include:

  • a dedicated offence to tackle domestic violence and
  • a way of dealing with serious harm caused by transmitting infectious diseases.

It also asks whether a new offence of minor injury, to be heard only in the magistrates’ courts, would help to ensure that less serious cases are dealt with appropriately.

Professor David Ormerod QC, law commissioner for criminal law, said: “Violent behaviour results in almost 200,000 prosecutions each year. The harms caused can be grave and have a significant impact on victims and society. But the law under which violent offences are prosecuted is confusing and out of date.

“Our scoping paper lays a substantial foundation for a clear, modern statute providing a coherent scheme of structured, clearly defined offences that can be readily understood and efficiently prosecuted. We are asking consultees to tell us how the law can best be reformed to achieve this goal.”

The consultation closes on 11 February 2015.