10 August, 2009
It is often the case that the most violent offenders will continue to pose a risk of serious harm to the general public, even when they are no longer subject to any restrictions such as imprisonment. In August 2009, a new tool became available for the Police to use which may become an integral part of the toolkit for preventing anti social behaviour. The Violent Offender Order (VOO) is a civil order which can place restrictions upon an offender who continues to pose a risk of serious violent harm by prohibiting their access to certain places, premises, events or even people to whom they pose a significant risk.
The introduction of this device may not only be of interest to the wider public but also to housing associations who may find that their tenants are subject to such orders and may wish to be aware of the implications and impact of the restrictions imposed.
As stated previously, VOOs are designed to help the Police to protect the general public from violent offenders who have been released from prison and are no longer subject to any supervision, but remain a risk of causing serious violent harm. A VOO can place certain restrictions and prohibitions upon an offender to limit their access to people, places or premises and events. They have effect for a period of no less than two years but no more than five years, unless the VOO is renewed or discharged.
The Police are responsible for monitoring VOOs and investigating any breaches of the VOO's terms (which is a criminal offence and may result in a fine or imprisonment for up to five years) but a VOO does not give them any additional powers of enforcement such as the right to enter the offender's home without a warrant.
VOOs can only be made in respect of people who are deemed to be 'qualifying offenders'. This means that the offender must be aged 18 years or over and has been sentenced to a custodial sentence of 12 months or more, or is in receipt of a Hospital Order or Supervision Order in respect of a specified offence (manslaughter, soliciting murder, wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm, malicious wounding and attempting to commit or conspiracy to commit murder). An offender has the right to appeal to the Crown Court against the decision to grant a VOO.
It is important to state that not all offenders who are deemed to have qualified will be automatically be considered for a VOO. The aim is for VOOs to be used after an assessment has been carried out of the risk of serious violent harm being enacted by the offender in the future. In any application made to the court, it will be important to show that the offender in question has, since becoming a qualifying offender, acted or behaved in a manner that indicates that they pose a risk and that the VOO is necessary.
Once it has been decided that a VOO is required, an application should be made to the magistrates' court. Only a chief officer of the relevant Police force may apply for a VOO. The application itself can be made, but cannot come into force, when the offender is in prison, subject to statutory restrictions or subject to a Hospital Order or Supervision Order in relation to any offence. It may be the case that the Police will make an application for a VOO before the restrictions end so that, on the first day the offender ceases to be restricted, it will come into force.
Applications can also be made for interim VOOs if it is felt necessary to immediately protect the public from the risk of serious violent harm. Such applications can be made at the time of the main application for the VOO or once the main application has been made and based upon subsequent operational judgements by the Police that such an order is necessary.
A further point that may be worthy of note is that ordinarily, under the Magistrates' Court Act 1980, a magistrates' court cannot hear a complaint unless it was made within six months of the matter of the complaint arising. For VOOs, there is an exception to this provided by the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 which provides that the basis of a complaint can occur at any time since the conviction. This means that the Police would be able to rely upon relevant behaviour which is outside the six month time period. It may however prove difficult to demonstrate the risk of serious violent harm to the public with more historic complaints.
It has been suggested that the Police should, based upon their operational and professional judgements, continue to make an assessment of the risk of serious harm that the offender poses to the public. If during any review it is felt that the VOO is no longer appropriate to protect the public, an application can be made to the magistrates' court to vary, discharge or renew the VOO. Such applications can be made by the offender, the chief officer of the Police force who applied for the VOO, or the chief officer of a Police force who believes the offender is in, or intends to come into, their area.
The court may not discharge the VOO within the minimum two year period unless the application is made by the Police with the consent of the offender.
The introduction of VOOs may impact upon housing associations in terms of tenants potentially being subject to such orders. In theory, it may be the case that a tenant who is subject to a VOO may be prevented from visiting their property, the estate or from contacting a fellow tenant.
Additionally, housing associations may be asked by the Police to provide supporting statements for the application for the VOO. In order to do so, housing associations may wish to make use of a complete and comprehensive record of any instances of anti social behaviour and of any criminal activities which have been undertaken by tenants.
Whilst the recent introduction of VOOs may not immediately impact upon the operations of housing associations, it may be advisable for such organisations and other partner agencies of the Police to be aware of the order's workings as the period in which a VOO will be in force makes it a significant preventative tool. Housing associations may also be asked to assist in the application process itself. It may be the case that VOOs can do quite a lot for preventing serious violent behaviour in communities.