The previous articles in this series have introduced real life accounts of domestic abuse from a variety of victims. These people have had different experiences of the police and justice, which are the areas I want to focus on now. If these systems are ineffective, then victims may not be able to make themselves heard.
The graph shows an improvement in terms of the number of recorded domestic violence incidents. But is this a fair reflection of the current picture?
Although the police statistics are current, they only reflect crimes that have been reported to the police and subsequently recorded as a crime on the police system. The CSEW data reflects incidents that may have been reported to the police (and will therefore be in the police stats) but also incidents that have not been reported. But this dataset only goes up to March 2022, with that year being only six months’ worth of reported incidents. This means that the two most recent years on the above chart should be viewed with caution, in accordance with the notes on the ONS spreadsheets.
Law and order
Times have changed since 1984, when former Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Kenneth Newman said “Domestic violence and stray dogs … rubbish work for police officers”. In 2019, the HMICFRS (the official police inspectorate) said “the service the police give to victims of domestic abuse has improved markedly. Victims are now better supported and better protected”. However, work still needs to be done.
Independent Advisory Groups (IAGs) in each police force area bring together volunteers to work with the police for the benefit of the community, providing advice on a range of topics, including domestic abuse. I spoke to Sian Humphries, who is the co-chair of an IAG looking at violence against women and girls. In terms of domestic abuse, they’ve had campaigns on economic/financial abuse and have focused on moving away from victim blaming.
Domestic abuse is covered by a complex variety of offences and legislation. This includes the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861, the Harassment Act 1997, and the Domestic Violence Crime and Victims Acts 2004 and 2012; but there are many more Acts, each touching on aspects of domestic abuse. This complexity makes it difficult to easily monitor ‘domestic abuse’ offences, in comparison to, for example, theft of motor vehicles. The latest legislation to be brought in was the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, which introduced things such as:
- 1. the domestic abuse commissioner;
- 2. victims not being cross-examined by offenders in family courts;
- 3. a statutory basis for Clare’s Law, which allows a victim to find out about their partner’s history of violence; and
- 4. Improved Domestic Abuse Protection Notices (DAPNs) and Domestic Abuse Protection Orders (DAPOs), which legally prevent contact and abuse after the incident.
An ex-police sergeant with significant experience in domestic abuse cases told me that cases “often come to police attention because of neighbours reporting”, rather than the victims themselves coming forward. Each new piece of legislation hopefully takes us a step closer to making victims feel more confident in the justice system and making the job of the police easier, but the challenge is significant.
From The Law Society
Whilst the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 is a promising development, there are still areas of concern that it fails to address. These include systemic problems with delays in the justice system, which mean that justice takes a long time and can put victims off taking this course of action.
I asked The Law Society for their views on the Act. They told me:
“Responsibilities set out in the Act cross both the family and the criminal courts. However, we are seeing that victims continue to suffer due to court delays and the underfunding of the justice system.
“A very welcome part of this Act includes protecting victims from being cross-examined by their alleged abuser through the use of the Qualified Legal Representative (QLR) scheme.“
However, our members practising in family law tell us this scheme is struggling to attract advocates because the fees paid are so low. The fees have been based on legal aid rates which have not increased since 1996. This represents a real-term fee cut of 50%. Quite simply, those able to do this vital work cannot afford to undertake it.
“This issue is compounded by the fact that the fee scheme excludes travel expenses, preventing the already few QLRs from being able to carry out the scheme at courts across the country. In some instances, it would actually cost advocates to attend hearings.
“The problem of survivors being cross-examined by their abusers arose partly in consequence of the removal of private family law proceedings from the scope of family legal aid, leading to more people representing themselves.“
Reinstating legal aid for private law cases would also lessen the need for the QLR scheme, therefore requiring fewer practitioners to make it viable.
“The latest figures show that the backlogs of outstanding cases in the magistrates’ court and the Crown Court continue to get worse. Victims and defendants are facing unacceptable delays with years spent in limbo as they wait for justice.
“The courts have been operating at well below maximum. Far too many courtrooms are sitting empty every single day.
“As well as making sure that courts are fit for purpose and available for judges to sit in, there needs to be urgent investment to tackle the chronic lack of personnel. Ensuring there are enough judges, court staff and lawyers to do the work must be a priority.”
Issues within the criminal justice system
The Law Society reply mentions legal aid. It’s important to know how much this has changed over the years. Before the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 was introduced, four in five people were eligible for legal aid. In 2000 alone, 803,828 new legal aid cases were started. It was a fantastic scheme for anyone entering the criminal justice system who otherwise couldn’t afford legal advice. However, since the introduction of the Act, new legal aid cases have dropped by 85%. In 2020, only one in four people were eligible for this support, meaning that access to legal advice is now restricted to those with enough money to pay this directly, or those on severely limited incomes.
On the subject of processing delays, the Institute for Government shows that, “the backlog of cases that started during the pandemic will affect courts for years to come”. Statistics show that the number of cases entering the court system has been in decline since 2014, primarily due to falling police numbers combined with how long some cases take to investigate. When it comes to domestic abuse, these delays put victims in danger of further abuse. In this example from Scotland, a trial for stalking and harassment was delayed so many times that it was eventually abandoned, leaving the victim with no resolution and without even the protection of bail conditions.
As for courtrooms, despite the considerable backlog in cases, it was reported that crown courts across England and Wales rooms are lying empty due to cuts in the number of junior part-time judges, and cuts in the number of ‘sitting days’ judges are allowed. This further exacerbates a problem that is already having a devastating impact on victims of domestic abuse.
Culturally specific issues
It’s worth mentioning there are specific cultural differences in domestic abuse cases involving victims of colour. Colloquialisms, language differences and cultural barriers mean that threats can be experienced very differently. Distrust of the police also has a significant impact. All these issues need to be factored in to understanding how to support people of colour who are victims of domestic abuse.
In 2014, Valerie Forde and her young daughter were brutally murdered in an act of domestic violence. Valerie had reported previous incidents to the police, but they were recorded as threats to property rather than threats to life. It became apparent during this time that there was a lack of understanding/training about culturally specific issues which created this problem.
This homicide was the inception point for the Valerie’s Law campaign, which specifically calls for mandatory training for the police and other agencies. Implementing this will obviously have a direct impact on the police and legal aspects of domestic abuse and has the potential to save lives.
The campaign was debated in parliament and the government said that it has a plan, but the Valerie’s Law supporters say this has now ground to a halt, with no progress since the initial announcement.
What does it all mean?
Describing what is an inevitably complex and nuanced issue is a delicate exercise. In a network of interconnected organisations spanning the police service, social services, and the judiciary, what clearly emerges is the importance of empowering victims to step forward. The correct measures and safeguards must be reliably in place for victims to report violence, threat and domestic abuse and be instilled with the confidence that the necessary action will be swiftly taken.
A major barrier to this is a pattern of underfunding across all sectors. This ultimately rests with the government and many victims will continue to be fall through the cracks unless it’s addressed. Cuts to policing and court services, cuts in legal aid, and cuts in victim support services all contribute to creating conditions that are failing victims of domestic abuse.
In part 4, I will highlight how some vital victims support services struggle on a regular basis.