'The most depressing place in Manchester': inside city's domestic violence court

As other crimes plummet, in unhappy families abuse carries on behind the closed doors of lockdown

Manchester magistrates court is normally one of the busiest in the UK, with 16 often chaotic courtrooms. Each morning, a queue of defendants and lawyers snakes out of the building, some people frantically finishing their cigarettes as they wait to go through the security scanners and up the escalators to the second floor.

Not any more. Since the government ordered an immediate pause on all but the most urgent judicial business, and shoplifting and burglary rates plummeted, it has been much quieter, with just three courts in regular operation. But there is one form of crime that is keeping those rooms busy from 10am to 4pm each day.

This month alone, 172 domestic violence cases have been listed before Manchester magistrates, ranging from allegations of grievous bodily harm to repeated breaches of restraining orders and verbal threats to kill. Most have ended up in court 4, colloquially known as the “DV court” and “the most depressing place in Manchester”.

Journalists no longer sit at the back, scribbling shorthand, straining to hear defendants’ pleas in the bulletproof dock. Instead, they listen in from home.

For four days this month, the Guardian listened in on court 4 to hear what was happening behind closed doors in lockdown. Charities have recorded a 25% increase in calls about domestic violence and police say incidents are up by 3% across England and Wales. But it is in courtrooms like these that a picture of what is going on in bad relationships under lockdown emerges under oath – where women regret letting their violent ex back to help out with the kids while schools are shut; where people lose their tempers in the kitchen and grab the nearest utensil to beat their partner; and where some victims are now applying to allow their abusers back home.

One day the court heard a case involving an estranged couple who split up last year after a decade together. Police were called after the 28-year-old man is said to have made threats to kill his ex-partner in front of their small child. She had allowed him to move back in “to make things easier” during lockdown, the court heard. He became violent after she refused to get into bed with him.

Neither were in court. There weren’t even any lawyers present. Instead, a police officer went into the witness box to apply for a domestic violence protection order (DVPO). A bit like a restraining order, a DVPO is a protective measure designed to give breathing space to victims in the immediate aftermath of an incident by granting a temporary respite from their abuser and allowing for referral to support services. Crucially, they do not require a complainant to provide a witness statement and there does not need to be enough evidence to bring charges.

The judge granted the DVPO, despite the woman refusing to cooperate with police. On Tuesday another was given against a 34-year-old man from Salford accused of punching his partner and ripping her top off so that she was naked from the waist up when police arrived. She did not support the order being made, the court heard, despite having called 999. Her partner had nowhere else to live during the lockdown and only enough money to stretch to two weeks in a hotel: the judge made the order for 14 days accordingly.

On Thursday a 41-year-old man appeared in the dock accused of hitting his wife in the face with a pan in front of their daughter, requiring her to have stitches. He pleaded not guilty to actual bodily harm and was bailed on an electronic tag. He was told he would eventually stand trial, but no trial dates are currently being set, meaning the already overburdened courts will have to deal with a huge backlog when the lockdown is lifted.

Bailing alleged abusers is posing a particular problem, with defendants required to keep their distance from complainants. Some have nowhere else to go, or are being bailed to live with elderly parents who may be shielding during the pandemic. Local authorities have told police they will find emergency accommodation for domestic abusers, just as they are doing for homeless people. But it is unclear how that is working in practice.

Court 4 does not just deal with disputes between couples. Sometimes parents press charges against their violent children, though some are ready to forgive their abusive offspring.

On Wednesday a woman from Moston in north Manchester applied to discharge a restraining order she had taken out against her 18-year-old son last August. He had been convicted of causing £4,000 worth of damage to her home. She would take him back because he had promised not to hurt her again, the court heard. Her request was granted, after much discussion with probation and the youth offending services. Three other victims made similar applications to the court this month.

In another case, a 15-year-old boy pleaded guilty to assaulting his mother by spitting at her and smashing a door in their house in Salford. He appeared in court with his social worker, who explained the boy had grown up surrounded by violence and that arrangements had been made to take him away from the home since the latest incident.

On Thursday a 33-year-old woman was in the dock after allegedly threatening to kill her mother with a kitchen knife shortly after being released from a psychiatric unit. She wailed throughout the hearing. “I didn’t do it, she’s lying,” she cried as her lawyer asked for bail. It was denied. She will spend the lockdown on remand in jail.


Helen Pidd North of England editor

The GuardianTramp

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