In the Media

Ending the cycle of domestic violence

PUBLISHED July 26, 2006

A litany of errors allowed Julia Pemberton to die at the hands of her husband. A judicial decision on the case, expected tomorrow, could be crucial in preventing these kinds of deaths, as Catherine Atkinson finds out

The murder of Julia and William Pemberton in 2003 highlighted the shocking inadequacies of the local police force, the coroner system and the way our society and our legal system deals with domestic violence. A domestic violence homicide review, the first of its kind, will be conducted into their deaths. But will it succeed in learning from the mistakes made in this case? Frank Mullane, Julie's brother, fears not, as he told me when we discussed his hopes for a crucial decision tomorrow.
The July judicial review will decide whether or not the homicide review must be compliant with Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights and determine accountability for these deaths. Mr Mullane believes this to be essential if the failures of the judicial system in this case are to be remedied.

Following years of abuse, Julia Pemberton went to Thames Valley police after her estranged husband, Alan Pemberton, had threatened to kill her. 14 months later, in November 2003, Alan shot his son, Will, and then Julia, before killing himself.

The story is one of abject system failure. The police force had no domestic violence policy, neglected to undertake a risk assessment and ignored repeated and increasingly desperate pleas for help. In the 14 months Julia was begging for help, they made basic policing errors, failed to share information between themselves and made no attempt to join forces with other agencies.

On the night of the murders, during Julia's desperate 16-minute 999 call, she was told to "stay hidden," the police were on their way. They may have been on their way but they waited to enter the house for six hours. It is hard to disagree with Mr Mullane when he says that, "the very organisation Julia trusted to save her life was instrumental in ensuring she lost it".

The chief executive of domestic violence charity Refuge, Sandra Horley, has said that, in her 28 years of experience working with women and children escaping from domestic violence, she has never come across such a tragic and preventable series of events.

The police withheld vital information from the family before and during an adversarial and ineffectual inquest where the coroner stated that, "nothing it seems to me from the evidence I have heard could have prevented him from doing what he did".

Could there be a clearer case in need of review? Mr Mullane and family have campaigned tirelessly for just that and thought they had succeeded when their lobbying resulted in the trialing of a domestic violence homicide review into their deaths (which is an aspect of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 that has not yet been enacted).

So why is it not everything they hoped and worked for? Mr Mullane told me he is worried that the way it is currently framed will mean the review is simply another lost opportunity for change. It will not inspire public confidence or achieve anything that will prevent murders like these. He told me, "this homicide review is not just about my sister and nephew - it is about how we stop the next woman from dying next week".

At present the proposed review will be conducted by the West Berkshire Safer Communities Partnership, comprised of the police, local authority and health service - arguably the very bodies that failed Julie Pemberton when she needed them. The partnership does not include the family or independent domestic violence workers like Refuge or the Southall Black Sisters.

The partnership has also denied that they have a duty to investigate their failings and accountability within this review. Mr Mullane thinks differently and has sought judicial review to make the homicide review compliant with Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights, the right to have life protected by law.

Article 2 imposes a positive duty to investigate unnatural deaths and requires that inquiry to be independent, prompt, open to public scrutiny to ensure accountability and involve the next of kin. One way this duty may be discharged is through inquests - but what then happens when inquests themselves fail miserably?

The constitutional affairs minister, Harriet Harman, has stated that homicide reviews "sprung up because the coroner system has not been dealing appropriately with these cases" and, "if the coroners' system were working properly, we would not need homicide reviews". The proposed changes to the coroners' system can be seen as a step in the right direction achieved through the work of campaigners like Frank and his family.

But the minister for criminal justice, Lady Scotland, and the Home Office disagree with his Mr Mullane's point that the proposed homicide review must take on the obligations imposed by Article 2. They do not appear to consider whether the agencies contributed to the two deaths to be a relevant issue when conducting a review of the tragedy. They apparently do not believe there can be honest and open discussion while also taking responsibility and providing the accountability Mr Mullane has been campaigning for.

Mr Mullane said, "Something must be done to prevent the 2 murders a week which are the result of domestive violence. The Home Office agrees that these are the most preventable of all murders. We want an enquiry that will learn lessons, identify prevention opportunities and make fundamental changes to the way domestice violence is handled".

The domestic violence homicide review could achieve so much but this will only happen if the reviews are truly open, honest and comprehensive. Lady Scotland wants to limit inquiries into how the victim died and who is culpable to the coroners and criminal courts.

But the government must accept their continuing obligation to provide an effective inquiry under Article 2 if the coroner fails. Public confidence will not grow and lessons will not be learnt unless agencies hold their hands up when they make mistakes. Mr Mullane said "We have never looked for retribution. We are looking for change and we will continue to seek change by whatever avenue is required".

Whether or not domestic violence homicide reviews will be a vehicle for that change remains to be seen. The Home Office is conducting a consultation on the domestic violence homicide reviews until September 13 2006.

Catherine Atkinson is a newly qualified barrister