Two women every week are killed by a current or former partner. This statistic has not changed for the last 15 years. One in four women experience domestic violence from a current or former partner during their lifetime.
These findings from UK charity Women’s Aid suggest domestic violence is widespread and endemic. Information newly obtained by the Labour Party under the Freedom of Information Act reveals a 10 per cent increase in reporting of domestic violence since 2010. However, a rise in the number of reports of violence does not necessarily mean more abuse. Rather, the rise in reports of abuse may be attributed to more women coming forward to report violence.
Somewhat confusingly, an increase in reporting of abuse has been met by a 13 per cent decline in police cases referred to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), leading to an overall reduction in prosecutions. Unsurprisngly the number of successful prosecutions fell by 1.6 per cent in 2011-2012 to a low of 11.1 per cent in 2012-2013. According to Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, “One in five perpetrators who would previously have been charged are now getting away with it.” The statistics indicate that perpetrators can commit deplorable acts of gender-based violence with impunity.
Following publication of the statistics, Theresa May, the Home Secretary, last Friday announced that Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) will inspect the performance of police forces across the country, to identify where improvements need to be made to ensure effectiveness of the police approach to domestic violence and report back in April 2014. Unfortunately the investigation is not a public inquiry that would also examine the CPS and other public bodies including the NHS and social services. A public inquiry would also have the added advantage of being transparent, independent and would involve consultation with victims and their families.
The outcome of the report is likely to identify numerous causes for the figures. Yvette Cooper attributes “these shocking and disturbing figures” to a concomitant 20 per cent cut in policing. Clearly cuts to police budgets must pose challenges to investigating complaints of domestic violence; it’s a truism that with fewer resources, evidence is harder to come by. Shadow Minister for Crime Prevention, Stella Creasy, adds “With cuts to policing and specialist services it is vital we ensure [police] forces have the resources and the expertise to act – and a commitment to take this all the way to convictions.”
Indeed, cuts to specialist services are significant. In 2012 roughly 230 women were turned away each day by Women’s Aid because the charity lacked the necessary resources. While Refuge, an emergency accommodation charity for women and children, reported a 50 per cent cut in funding. The list of cuts to similar critical services is endless. Rather than cutting services, increased reporting of domestic violence must be met with renewed and galvanized victim support.
Specialist services work with victims to prevent domestic violence from occurring, and provide support to those fleeing abusive relationships. In the vacuum of specialist support, it can seem impossible to exit a violent relationship. After reporting violence, women face the prospect of living lives on the run from dangerous and controlling ex-partners. With nowhere to turn - and in real fear of further violence - women seek refuge with charities. Without this support women are more likely to return to abusive partners.
Consider that, on average, a woman will have been assaulted 35 times before her first call to the police. Survivors require sustained support to empower them to report abuse to the police and to pursue their case to prosecution stage. Indeed, one potential reason for the current reduction in CPS referrals could be victim reluctance to pursue complaints to prosecution stage when there is little support available.
There may be other underlining causes for these perturbing figures. Something worth considering is the difficulty of evidencing coercive control to secure a prosecution. Early in 2013 the Government expanded its definition of domestic violence to include coercive control of those aged 16-17. This was a step in the right direction towards recognizing the complex nature of domestic violence in a context of power and control.
Regrettably, the Government’s definition of coercive control is not the legal definition. The Government’s definition is therefore not acknowledged by the police, nor the CPS. This causes real confusion and adds to the complexity. Reports of coercive control are incredibly difficult to evidence given the intangible nature of such abuse. Without strong evidence to prove allegations the police are unlikely to refer reports of coercive control to the CPS.
Over the next year expect to see a continued decrease in cases referred to the CPS. Following legal aid cuts in April 2012 clients need to provide evidence they were victims of domestic violence in order to be eligible for legal aid in certain family matters, such as contact and residence disputes. Many clients report abuse to the police in order to obtain initial police reports, which then makes them eligible for legal aid. Once a report is logged, not all survivors want to pursue their complaint to the CPS. In such circumstances, reports of domestic violence will continue to increase because victims want to ensure their eligibility for legal aid only; meanwhile referrals to the CPS will decrease, because many survivors will not want to secure a conviction against perpetrators.
The Home Secretary has until April next year to better articulate changes to the approach of the police in investigating complaints of domestic violence. In the meantime the Government has a responsibility to ring-fence policing and survivor services in order to protect vulnerable women from abusive relationships before domestic abuse escalates even further. Every person has the right to live a life free from violence.