On March 12, 2012 a law on ‘the temporary prohibition of residence in cases of domestic violence’ was introduced in Belgium. This law permits the public prosecutor to order a temporary prohibition of residence for an adult person presenting a danger to the safety of one or multiple people in the same residence. After receiving this prohibition the person is required to leave the shared residence and is not allowed to be near it for the duration of the measure. In addition the public prosecutor can order a restraining order.
The law is meant as a tool for protecting people in dangerous situations that could easily escalate. The prohibition is seen as a safety measure, a ‘cooling-off period’ during which all people involved can reflect on the situation without further escalation. However, the measure can only be invoked when the danger is interpreted as both serious and immediate. A temporary prohibition of residence cannot be ordered when there is only a ‘future danger’. It can also not be invoked when the person presenting the danger is a minor. ‘Residence’ is in this case more broadly defined than someone’s official address, but for the measure to be applied the person presenting the danger and the one in danger, do have to live together.
The strict time frame within which the procedure has to be handled, was seen as the added value of the law in 2012. The procedure allows ten days for judging whether a prohibition of residence is appropriate. Thereafter there’s twenty-four hours to set a time and date for the case to be handled. This can then lead to the prohibition being suspended or extended for a maximum of three months.
In 2013 and 2014, the two years following the introduction of the law, almost 100.000 incidents of domestic violence were registered in Belgium. Of those 100.000 registered incidents only 65 perpetrators received a temporary prohibition of residence. This contrast in numbers has led to questions. Why is the measure so rarely used?
So far it’s clear there are geographical differences. In some areas the measure has been used up to twenty times, while in others there’s hardly any knowledge about what the measure entails at all. Some factors have been pointed to as possible reasons for the lack of use. For instance, the procedure is based on one used for collocation. This procedure needs to be completed in only a couple of days, yet involves a good deal of administration.
Another obstacle is the crucial role the police play. When officers get called to a scene, a risk assessment needs to be made quickly. To perform this assessment however, there are no official tools available. Even when they would judge a prohibition of residence to be in order, they lack a proper system to verify whether enough resources are available for the victims to be followed-up on, for instance. A ‘period of safety’ without supervision on whether the prohibition is respected, doesn’t provide much safety at all. Furthermore, what if the person presenting a danger cannot find another place to live? Not all important elements are factors the police has any control over.
The justice minister agrees an evaluation of the law is in order. Meanwhile he’s working on Family Justice Centres where victims of domestic violence can both register incidents and receive help. The idea behind the centres is to lower the threshold for speaking out and seeking help. One can wonder though, whether lowering the threshold is of much use when the measures available to stop further escalation of violence are hardly known or used by the people that need to apply them. Especially if those people lack tools to apply them effectively.