Police not safeguarding domestic abuse victims as prosecutions collapse, watchdog finds

‘We fear that in five years’ time situation will not be much different to today,’ says solicitor

Maya Oppenheim
Women’s Correspondent
Tuesday 24 August 2021 00:17
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<p>Inspectors discover Domestic Violence Protection Orders are obtained on average in just 1 per cent of domestic abuse crimes</p>

Inspectors discover Domestic Violence Protection Orders are obtained on average in just 1 per cent of domestic abuse crimes

Police forces have been failing to properly safeguard domestic abuse victims with prosecutions having collapsed by 50 per cent in only three years, a policing watchdog has found.

A police super-complaint, which the Centre for Women’s Justice submitted in March 2019, warned the police are putting women and girls at risk by not using protective mechanisms, such as pre-charge bail with conditions and restraining orders, when violence is perpetrated.

HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, Fire and Rescue Services, the Independent Office for Police Conduct and the College of Policing has now released the results of their investigation into the super-complaint.

The organisations corroborated the super-complaint’s conclusion the criminal justice system is not properly responding to domestic abuse cases in spite of the government purporting to be tackling the issue via its long-awaited Domestic Abuse Act, which was signed into law in the spring.

The new inspectorate report found domestic abuse prosecutions plummeted by 50 per cent - falling from 18 per cent of reported cases in 2017 to just 9 per cent in 2020.

The issue was compounded by the fact substitute forms of protection are not being properly utilised, researchers found.

Nogah Ofer, solicitor at the Centre for Women’s Justice, a legal charity which tackles violence against women, said: “The realities on the ground are that large numbers of women feel deeply let down by the criminal justice response when they turn to the police for protection.

“Passing yet more legislation won’t change their experiences if powers are not being used.”

Ms Ofer said the super-complaint’s recommendations failed to fully acknowledge the gravity of the issue or “go far enough” to make sure police forces enact concrete changes.

She said: “Some recommendations require improved data gathering, and tell chief constables in general terms to prioritise and monitor use of orders, but there is a lack of specifics and no discussion of under-resourcing, which is the elephant in the room. We fear that in five years’ time the situation will not be much different to today.”

Two women a week are killed in England and Wales by a current or ex-partner, while one in four women will suffer domestic abuse at some point during their lives.

Inspectors discovered Domestic Violence Protection Orders are obtained on average in just 1 per cent of domestic abuse crimes.

Restraining orders - which can last up to a lifetime and often restrict where abusers can go or who they can approach - are used in less than a quarter of domestic abuse prosecutions. Women are instead being forced to resort to the civil courts and while civil injunctions have risen by 48 per cent from 2010 to 2019, convictions for breaches fell by 3 per cent in the same period.

Many domestic abuse victims take action against abusers through the civil courts rather than the criminal system because it is a less distressing and protracted process.

Harriet Wistrich, an award-winning human rights lawyer who is director of the Centre for Women’s Justice, said: “This report highlights some of the reasons why so few women feel confidence in the system. Whilst new the Domestic Abuse Act and other legislative initiatives are to be welcomed, such laws are worth little more than the paper they are written on, unless they are properly implemented.

“Until the government properly resources the creaking criminal justice system and police and other agencies are held accountable for failures, many victims will continue to be at unnecessary risk of harm.”

The complaint is only the second super-complaint to be submitted since the new system was introduced in November 2018. The super-complaint system, which covers all police forces in England and Wales, allows organisations to raise concerns on behalf of the public and confront systemic issues.

The new watchdog report found although there were some good examples of the police utilising such measures, the grievances raised in the initial super-complaint were predominantly confirmed.

However, inspectors found failures permeated the criminal justice system, rather than solely being the fault of the police. The shortcomings make domestic abuse survivors less likely to come forward to report future instances of violence and mistreatment, the watchdog warned.

Michael Lockwood, director general of Independent Office for Police Conduct, said: “Police have a key role in protecting vulnerable people and this super-complaint has highlighted clear gaps where improvements must be made in protecting vulnerable women and girls.

“More than ever we need a consistent approach to stopping appalling crimes of violence against women and girls from occurring in the first place.”

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