Skip to content

Domestic Violence and the death of Georgina McCarthy

Havant Women’s Aid
Annual General Meeting
4 September 2001

It is good to be here this evening and to hear of the work, activity and energy of Women’s Aid in Havant.

I have been involved in work on violence against women for more than a third of a century.  It is almost always depressing and frustrating and there are few laughs, apart that is from the laughter which springs from the astonishing resilience of women in and around a Women’s Aid refuge.

But some things have changed over that 30 year period and are continuing to change.  I am going to talk about that tonight.

I started my criminological career as a forensic psychologist. When I was being trained, the culture of the time was captured by words of a senior police officer who said, “you have to remember that not all murders are equally serious.  Some are just men killing their wives”.

You take the culture of the day for granted.  Generally, you have to be standing somewhere else in order to be able to challenge it.  To regard murderers who kill strangers as more dangerous than husbands who killed wives was simply the way people looked at things.

Domestic violence was just that, a domesticated form of violence.  Rather less serious than other violence because at least we, the public, were not at risk.  Every couple had a row from time to time and we should not be surprised if violence was part of that.

I am pleased to say two things as a follow-up to that story.  First, that no senior police officer would say anything remotely like that today.  Rather, they would go to great, and indeed impassioned, lengths to contradict it.  The police have completely changed their views on violence in the home and handle it in a wholly different way.  More of that later.

Secondly, the Government has spoken out.  Last year, the then Deputy Home Secretary, Paul Boateng said “Home should be a place of safety and domestic violence should be seen as a breach of trust so serious as to be an aggravating factor in how [offenders are] dealt with and in sentencing”.

What a change!  Here we have a Home Office Minister saying that, because of the breach of trust involved, domestic violence should be regarded more seriously than other forms of violence and should be treated as such by the criminal justice system.

That is the position which the Government has taken in the UK and that is the position which the UK has promoted across the member and applicant states of the EU.

So let’s celebrate that change.  Like in any change in culture, one wonders why anyone ever saw it differently.

But domestic violence continues at an unacceptably high level.  In this country, each week, two women a week are killed by their partners, or ex-partners.  Roughly one in four women and one in seven men reported a physical assault by a current or former partner in their lifetime.  Between one in nine and one in ten women experience domestic violence in any given year.  Figures like this may well be familiar to this audience.  They are listed very graphically on Women’s Aid’s excellent website.

With violence in the home, we know that women suffer 10 or 15 attacks before they go to the police.  An average adult has to go to A&E, as a patient about twice in a lifetime.  Before a woman is killed, she will have been to hospital because of her injuries between 30 and 35 times. Identifying the victims of domestic violence does not require a degree, just an ability to count to ten.  Lots of people will know of the violence she is enduring.  But most will not have the courage to ask questions.

It’s just all so predictable.  Last week, a Kent police officer killed his wife and children.  The papers were full of how surprising this was: he was such a lovely man, who adored his children.  Nobody would have imagined he could do it.

I agree that, if that were true, it would indeed be astounding.  It took just a day for a different version to emerge.  He had attacked his wife before.  His own force had considered charging him with assault.  He was just like all those who murder their wives.  He had been at it for years and killed her, as so many do, when she said she wanted to leave.

There is something of that in my next story.  But, not least because at AGMs one celebrates progress and hope, I wanted to talk tonight particularly about the case of Gina McCarthy.  Like all stories of domestic violence, it is deeply disturbing.  But this one has at least a little bit of hope as well.

Gina lived with her husband, Paul Russell, and their baby son, Adam, in Torquay.  She was the subject of considerable violence by Paul, and after an incident in which she was dragged down the stairs by her hair, she separated from him and took Adam to the Women’s Aid refuge in Penzance.

Paul was determined to try to find Gina and to go to some lengths to do so. He instructed an enquiry agent and initiated child contact proceedings in the court, ostensibly so he could see his son.  As is not uncommon in such cases, Paul threw in an allegation, later proved groundless, that the boy was at risk of violence from his mother.

Gina had to come out of hiding for the court hearings and to allow child contact. Her local court was, by now, Truro and Paul was beginning to work out where she was.

While Paul started to search for Gina more earnestly he was convicted for the assault he had committed when he dragged her down the stairs.

Four months after Gina had fled from Torquay Paul, by persisting with his contact order, sought an order from the court which involved a report by Penzance and Truro Social Services and Penzance Women’s Aid.  All this will have been disclosed, by the solicitor, to Paul Russell.  Paul was getting closer.  Penzance Women’s Aid requested, and obtained, additional security and protection from the police.  The court, by a series of directions, sought to increase the level of protection for Gina.

On 9 May 1998, Paul Russell found Gina in her secure house and killed her.  He is now serving life imprisonment for murder and Adam has been adopted out.

But that is not the end, quite.  At the urging of Women’s Aid, Paul Boateng was determined to see whether anything could be done to reduce the chance of all this happening again with another victim in similar circumstances.  He asked for a review into the circumstances of Gina’s death – itself slightly unusual in that this was likely to be more about civil, than criminal, law and therefore not within the normal ambit of the Home Office – and I was the person who did that review.

Because the outcome of this review is now public, I am able to speak publicly about the Gina McCarthy case for the first time. Because of the part which Women’s Aid has played, it is a pleasure to be able to do so at a Women’s Aid AGM.

I was able to meet all the people involved in the case: the judges, the police, the Crown Prosecution Service staff and Gina’s legal representative.  All were immensely helpful and immensely shocked and distressed by the way this case had turned out.  I had access to any papers.

There was little doubt that the courts had done all the right things and the police had provided extensive protection, but it still ended in death.

This bit of the tale is therefore also about attitudes to domestic violence.  One attitude was that, if someone is determined enough to commit murder, in a free society, there is not much you can do to stop that. That can’t be right.

Civil courts are less formal than criminal courts and commendably speedier.  A criminal case can take several weeks, sometimes even months, before it comes to trial.  By contrast, civil courts often have to act within twenty four hours, sometimes even less.  This difference in time meant that Paul Russell’s outstanding criminal charges were not heard until after the contact proceedings were well under way.

Indeed, although Paul Russell was charged with violence offences against Gina, and had serious previous convictions, little if any of this was put before the civil courts because of a convention that unproved criminal matters should not play a part in determining a civil matter.  The two court systems were entirely separate.  This left Paul free to argue that he was a fine, upstanding, father who would hurt nobody.

Secondly, solicitors try to be open with their clients.  This meant that, in a case like this when evidence is produced by a social worker from Cornwall or Penzance or wherever, Paul Russell could immediately see, not merely the content of the evidence, but the whereabouts of its author.  If you know the name of the social worker, it is not difficult to find where he or she works.

Thirdly, civil proceedings are handled by civil law lawyers, without the Crown Prosecution Service or the police having any part to play.  The powerful Protection from Harassment Act 1997 creates offences for harassment and provides criminal penalties of up to five years’ imprisonment.  But civil lawyers are likely to feel more at home with civil injunctions rather than the criminal powers and sanctions of the Protection from Harassment  Act.

I soon found out that, in relation to family law, the Lord Chancellor is advised by an Advisory Board on Family Law.  This Board had a Children’s Act Sub-Committee which was reviewing the issue of child contact in cases of domestic violence.  The Sub-Committee was chaired by Mr Justice Wall, who gave me immense help.

Sir Nicholas Wall quickly took on board the implications of the Gina McCarthy case for child contact and was prepared to work hard with me to try to find a solution to all the issues which came out of it.  The outcome is that, at his instigation, this year’s Advisory Board Report* contains a summary of the Gina McCarthy case and the work that is in hand in response to it.
[* The Advisory Board on Family Law, Fourth Annual Review 2000/2001: Lord Chancellor’s Department]

Let me give you a flavour.  First (para 2.55) ” the principal message which emerges from this case is the need for the criminal and family justice systems not merely to co-operate, but to develop an integrated approach to the issue of domestic violence”.  That is a massive step forward.

Secondly, (para 2.56) “What the Family Justice System must aspire to is to ensure that in every case where it arises, the question of domestic violence is properly addressed; that the effect of domestic violence on the victim and the children concerned is properly understood and taken into account; that the risk of harm to children and residential parents is reduced to an absolute minimum by a rigorous assessment of the fact of the case, and by the refusal of contact to the non-residential parent where violence exposes an unacceptable risk of harm”.  That should put a stop to violent fathers trying to exploit the benefit of the doubt.

The report makes it clear how seriously the family justice system has taken the Gina McCarthy murder.  Amongst consideration of a number of technical points, there was a complete review of the rôle of the Tipstaff, who is responsible for executing search and locate orders.

And then there are some unusually unequivocal statements: “The whereabouts of the missing parent and children should not … be disclosed to the parent … or to that parent’s solicitor, unless and until the court gives permission for that information to be disclosed”.  Instead of victims having to apply to withhold their address, addresses should be kept secret unless the court orders otherwise (Annex E, para 7).  The report underlines this: “we would prefer a regime whereby the whereabouts were not disclosed without the court’s permission in every case” (para 11).

The report

  • recognises that the perpetrators of domestic violence are likely to be less than frank (para 8);
  • alerts solicitors to the need to take deliberate steps not to disclose the whereabouts of their clients, including instituting proceedings in a court which did not indicate the area in which the victim is living (para 14).

It recommends

  • that any additional cost should be chargeable to legal aid (para 15);
  • that there should be powers of arrest attached to all orders (para 23); and
  • more use of the Protection from Harassment Act (para 25).

Perhaps the most radical section is about the need for greater liaison between the criminal justice system and the family justice system.  For instance “where there are concurrent criminal and family proceedings … the statements and other written evidence in the criminal proceedings, including evidence of a party’s previous convictions, … be made available to … the family proceedings.  Equally, where the police take the view that one party is in danger or needs protection, evidence to that effect needs to be readily available to the court hearing the family proceedings” (para 19).

This signals a major change in culture.  Like all changes of culture, it seems to us transparently good sense.  But that is not how it has been up to now.

So, we can celebrate that change too today.  There is always more to be done, not least the work to get this new approach deeply embedded in the daily practice of all courts and all family lawyers.  But the ground has been broken. Gina McCarthy’s murder has made a big difference.

I will finish with some things which we can all do to keep the culture changing.  We can challenge violence at home in all its forms and, because it is a daily part of tv drama, make sure that television does not dull its awfulness for us.  Hitting your wife is not entertainment, it is offensive and it’s an offence.

We must be acutely sensitive to the fact that a woman’s risk of violence increases very significantly at the point where she says she wants to leave, or actually does so.  We must appreciate that, before she is being physically assaulted, she is likely to be the subject of cruel, unwanted sex, otherwise known as rape.  The children will know, the children may see. He may threaten “if I don’t have sex with you, I’ll have it with the children”.

We can pluck up courage to ask neighbours, colleagues at work, friends or relatives whether they are being hit by their partner.  Women’s Aid can advise what to do if the answer is yes.

We must not assume that any class or group of people are immune.  I have mentioned a police officer today.  I have recently written to senior church leaders across the region because research has indicated that the incidence of domestic violence is just as high amongst churchgoers as anywhere else.

If we are employers, we must be aware of the likely impact on staff and build domestic violence into personnel policies and procedures – there are a number of unions which can help with that. Violence at home is so common that virtually any organisation will be affected.

Being better informed means that you are better placed to prevent misery, injury, even murder.

It has been a great pleasure for me to be here today and to remember Gina, whose death may well help so many women, in so many ways, in their struggle for justice against violence.

I pay tribute to the work of Women’s Aid in that process.

Address given by Hugh Marriage OBE
Crime Reduction Director, Government Office for the South East