By Sam Maxwell Smith
With the movement of people across the EU being ever more prevalent, partly due to having low cost airlines available, it is essential that measures are put in place to ensure safety and support for victims of crime, not just in the country the offence took place, but also in states in which the victim chooses to reside or take an extended vacation. The European Protection Order (EPO) recognises the need to develop and deliver a more thorough and coordinated approach to victim support across the EU, and thus introduces measures to protect a person’s life, their physical, psychological or sexual integrity, and aims to prevent any form of harassment, or further criminal acts across national boundaries.
Essentially, it provides a simple and rapid mechanism for the recognition of protection measures in all member states. An EPO can be issued and executed by any member state, as long as a protection measure has been previously adopted in the issuing state and the measure relates to an offence that is recognised as criminal in the executing state, and the person causing risk is notified of any measures to be imposed.
A key driver behind the EPO was the need to protect and support victims of domestic violence. The relationship between an EPO and domestic violence is distinct; the aims of the measure focus on preventing any form of harassment across borders. Domestic violence continues to be a major issue for all member states and all developments and advancements to combat it and improve support measures are welcome.
Within the UK, one EPO so far as been executed; the defendant was convicted of 2 counts of common assault on 4 February 2016 and, as a result, the partner of the defendant (originally from Sweden) was advised by the Crown Prosecution Service to seek an EPO. The court granted a restraining order to prohibit the perpetrator from visiting a district in Sweden to where the victim was re-locating. This example demonstrates the potential of the measure and as a result of the EPO the victim has the freedom to continue her life as normal with less risk of being harassed by the defendant in any member state of the EU.
The protection measure is unlikely to be executed on a vast scale, however. Yet even if it helps one victim feel and be more safe then it has done its job. Domestic violence is commonplace around the world and this measure has great ambition and intention to help prevent cross border offences within Europe. It works alongside other welcome developments such as the Victims’ Directive to help develop and deliver the best support and service to victims of crime, and furthermore, has the potential to develop and progress the culture of victim rights, support and common standards across the continent.
Yet, despite the European Protection Order having great intentions and ambition, there are limitations that must be recognised. The Order relies upon the original offence being a criminal offence in the executing country as well as the issuing state; this may work in cases of assault. However, a clear issue for the EPO is that the offence of stalking is not recognised in law by all member states. What will this then mean for victims? In truth, it will mean member states are able to deny an execution of an EPO and the victim in question will not have their protective measure enforced. Stalking is one of the main areas the EPO was developed to address so it does seem that that it has fallen short of being able to deliver a real solution. According to the 2014 FRA Violence Against Women: An EU Wide Survey report, one in five women in Europe have experienced some form of stalking since the age of 15, and one in ten have been stalked by a previous partner. So it is clear that there is a serious issue that needs to be addressed and hopefully, as development continues, victims will feel confident to travel and live anywhere Europe with the knowledge that they are less likely to become victims of domestic violence and so feel safer as a result.
For EPOs to be properly effective we need to see the creation of a database to record all applications and monitor the effectiveness of the measure and address any shortcomings. Currently there is no certainty of a national register being formulated to collate statistical data on the EPO applications (issued and executed) and monitor their effectiveness. Even if the UK does adopt this approach, there is no guarantee that this will be replicated across all member states; it is evident that there is a compelling need to monitor all data and information. However, experience shows us that there is sufficient difficulty in the exchange of data intra state, let alone inter state. We must recognise that the EPO is, very much, a work in progress rather than the finished article.
We must also recognise that for the EPO to work well victims must be made more aware of its existence: awareness and knowledge in the first instance will likely increase the amount of Orders issued and will result in the measure being more effective. Indeed, awareness of the issues surrounding domestic abuse in itself can be seen as a major factor in preventing it. If we can change the culture and perception of domestic abuse then we can tackle it head on; education is a strong way to prevent future incidents of domestic abuse and violence. In short, the EPO should be seen as an additional milestone in the continuing development and advancement of victim and witness rights and cross border cooperation; we now need to build on this advancement.