Magistrate raises alarm over police confusion about protection orders

Police must deal with a criminal complaint first, and then may advise a person reporting domestic violence that they also have the option of applying to court for a protection order – not the other way around, Cape Town Family Court Magistrate Alta Le Roux said on Friday.

She was speaking at the first Victim Empowerment Programme local forum launched in Milnerton, north of Cape Town, which aims to coordinate responses between government agencies and NGOs to remove what Western Cape social development MEC Albert Fritz described as "bureaucratic blockages" in his opening remarks.

The forum falls under the Department of Social Development and intends to have regular meetings between departments including health and police, and the NGOs that provide shelter and other assistance.

Le Roux told those in attendance that some police officers demand protection orders from women reporting domestic violence before helping them with the actual crime that they are trying to report.

"It's not wrong to refer her to me, but it is still a criminal offence (the crime she tried to report)," said Le Roux.

She said there had been complaints that officers at Milnerton, Table View and other police stations had told victims they could only get help from police if they already had a protection order. This is contrary to several laws that give victims the right to seek protection and assistance.

Interim order, final order

They are also told by some police officers that once a warrant had lapsed, they cannot do anything for the victim anymore.

She said there was a difference between an interim protection order and a final protection order. There seemed to be confusion in differentiating between the two, which was leading some officers to claiming that they could only help a victim once the victim had a final protection order.

She stressed that nobody could be turned away by the police on the grounds that they did not already have a protection order.

She relayed a recent case where an ex-boyfriend was accused of attempted rape after the girl's mother had intervened and taken the child to the police station. In that case, the mother and daughter were sent away for a lack of a protection order instead of the police investigating and arresting the alleged rapist.

She said the difference between an interim order and a final order was that, with the interim order the respondent was informed of what they may or may not do in terms of the order. A magistrate then decides whether to make it final after hearing from both parties.

Breaching the terms of an interim order is an offence because it is still considered a protection order.

Under-resourced court

She urged the South Africa Police Service (SAPS) to attend to this confusion in its ranks.

She said the Cape Town Family Court, on the first floor on the corner of Caledon and Buitengracht streets, was under-resourced with only two of four courts operating for victims. 

It also did not have enough clerks and interpreters to deal with the volumes of information that people give officials while applying for protection orders, and this meant that sometimes people did not get the service they expected.

"And that is unacceptable. And that is something government needs to sort out."

Le Roux said the handful of staff tried their best to assist and also have to look for hidden signs such as injuries that the victims had not spoken of, and then help them fill in an affidavit to record these details.

"Some of them have become so used to being beaten and don't even show any emotions. That is unacceptable. We have to not fail our victims, but support them."

Risk of law suits

She said she was also told that police did not want to help when a protection order might lead to the accused having to move out of their home.

"They [police] need to go with to get his clothes because she is obviously in danger, because remember, we have actually heard evidence.

"It is not a civil eviction where SAPS can indicate: 'Oh we can't evict, we are going to get sued'.

"You may get sued by the family of the woman if she dies for not giving effect to a court order," warned Le Roux.

"We need to address this because people die, women die.

"That person sitting behind the desk needs to understand that it is not a normal crime. So be a bit empathetic."

Red flags

She said there had been an increase in complaints of victims being told: "I see it is your boyfriend, your husband, go to Family Court."

"As soon as they see it happened in a family set up, or a partnership set up, they send people to Family Court instead of handling the crime itself first."

She noted that court sees primarily women and children, but has noticed an increase in the number of parents seeking protection orders against children who have problems with drugs becoming violent.

Lieutenant Colonel Taswell Paulse, section head for gender-based violence and victim empowerment said: "Police must provide a professional, accessible and sensitive service to victims of crime and violence during the reporting and investigation of crime."

They must also watch for "red flags" such as instances where the same person opens a case and withdraws it repeatedly because this could be a sign of a deeper problem at home.

He warned that besides depriving victims of the service they are entitled to, not handling complaints at police level also opened the department to potential successful civil suits.

He urged the forum not to become a platform for airing out complaints, but a place where all the relevant government agencies and NGOs can work together for the benefit of the victims.