Calls for domestic abuse register to stop ‘chilling’ numbers of women killed by partners

Exclusive: ‘We need to see that very often there is a long history of domestic abuse. It is not just something that is against one partner,’ shadow justice minister says

Maya Oppenheim
Women’s Correspondent
Tuesday 06 December 2022 11:05 GMT
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<p>Rachel Horman-Brown, a prominent domestic abuse lawyer, warns criminal justice system’s handling of domestic abuse cases is worsening and ‘contributing to homicides’ of women</p>

Rachel Horman-Brown, a prominent domestic abuse lawyer, warns criminal justice system’s handling of domestic abuse cases is worsening and ‘contributing to homicides’ of women

A domestic abuse register must be introduced to stop the “chilling” numbers of women killed by their partners, a shadow justice minister has warned.

Speaking to The Independent in an exclusive interview, Ellie Reeves, shadow minister for prisons and probation, raised concerns there is a lack of “political will” in government to tackle domestic abuse as she warned “a lot more” must be done.

Ms Reeves, who leads on violence against women and girls in the justice team, hit out at the fact there has been a fall in charging, prosecution and convictions for domestic abuse.

Recent data released by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) showed police referrals to them have yet again decreased since the year before. Some 67,790 cases were referred, in comparison to 72,527 in the year ending June 2021, which is a fall of around seven per cent.

Rachel Horman-Brown, a prominent domestic abuse lawyer, also voiced concerns about the figures, telling The Independent the criminal justice system’s handling of domestic abuse cases is worsening and “contributing to homicides” of women.

While Refuge, the UK’s largest provider of shelters for domestic abuse victims, said the statistics demonstrate the UK is enduring an “epidemic of violence against women and girls” which exhibits “no sign” of coming to an end.

Discussing the need for a domestic abuse register, Ms Reeves said: “We need to see that very often there is a long history of domestic abuse. It is not just something that is against one partner. We find out it has happened to previous women in the past as well.”

The Labour politician, who is MP for Lewisham West and Penge, said “things are not joined up” at the moment and a register would give authorities a way of “centrally tracking” information about abusers.

"If a probation officer doesn't know about someone's history or if the court isn't aware of the long history of it, then there is less that can be done and fewer interventions that can be made to change offending behaviour and put in place solutions to it all,” Ms Reeves said.

Labour’s register would be for those convicted of serial domestic abuse and stalking and use the existing violent and sex offender register as the prototype for its format. Under the new measures, offenders convicted of serial offences and stalking would be forced to hand over personal information to the police and inform them of a change in their situation.

Ms Reeves, a former employment law barrister who represented trade unions, said she ultimately thought such a register could stop women dying at the hands of men as she warned victims are currently faced with a “postcode lottery”.

The government could have introduced a register when the domestic abuse bill was going through parliament, she added.

Ms Richards, a former top Metropolitan Police violent crime analyst, has been calling for a register for serial perpetrators of domestic abuse and stalking since 2004.

As many as three women are murdered each week by their partners or ex-partners in England and Wales.

Recent data released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows the number of domestic abuse crimes in England and Wales surged by 8 per cent in comparison to the year before, rising to 910,980 in the year ending March 2022.

Ms Horman-Brown, head of family, domestic Abuse, and stalking at WR Solicitors, told The Independent she supports a domestic abuse register as long as “it is actually utilised” but argued a “complete overhaul of how domestic abuse” is handled is needed.

Ms Horman-Brown, chair of Paladin, the National Stalking Advocacy Service, added: “The criminal justice system has never done very well with cases of domestic abuse however I have noticed that they are getting worse and that their lack of action or badly handled interventions are actually putting women at more risk of homicide rather than less.

“Officers need to be held to account for these failings and until we see officers charged with corporate manslaughter type offences or see them losing their jobs and their pensions nothing will change.”

She claimed women who come forward to allege domestic abuse are “routinely fobbed off and met with an attitude of disbelief” by officers which other crimes like burglary do not solicit.

Ms Horman-Brown added: “My view is that this is the direct expression of the misogyny within the police. The crimes they deal with the worst are the crimes which disproportionately affect women – domestic abuse, stalking, rape, sexual offences, and child abuse.

“Too often women are having to resort to paying for CCTV, solicitors and private investigators to get evidence to present to the police before they will do anything. It seems to be that if a woman reports a crime she needs three independent witnesses before the police take it seriously.”

Matters are “even worse” when women report coercive control or stalking, she added, as she stated, “police are routinely losing evidence, failing to check CCTV, interview witnesses or check phone records”.

Ms Horman-Brown added: “It is negligent and in my view contributing to homicides. As if the behaviour is not dealt with robustly it emboldens the perpetrator. Abuse of women has been virtually decriminalised the response is so poor.”

She said police officers are poorly educated about how the dynamics of non-physical abuse work – arguing they frequently offer advice like “change your number” or “we will give him a warning” despite her feeling such measures place victims at greater risk of danger.

“The amount of stalking protection orders obtained for example is embarrassing,” Ms Horman-Brown said. “Ditto the number of coercive control charges.”

Violence against women and girls has gained increasing attention since the murder of Sarah Everard by serving Met Police officer Wayne Couzens in March 2021 – with police facing sustained criticism over the failure to properly tackle these issues within their own ranks.

The criminal justice system has never done very well with cases of domestic abuse however I have noticed that they are getting worse and that their lack of action or badly handled interventions are actually putting women at more risk of homicide rather than less.

Rachel Horman-Brown

Ruth Davison, chief executive of Refuge, the UK’s largest provider of shelters for domestic abuse victims, said the latest data is “appalling”.

She added: “As police recorded an increase in the crimes reported to them, the number of cases referred to the CPS has fallen, as have arrests.

“Fundamentally, these figures suggest that domestic abuse is not being treated with the seriousness it deserves. An overwhelmed criminal justice system, with long delays in cases being heard combined with an insufficient number of specialist services to support survivors compounds this issue.”

She said the statistics show “yet again the urgency” of their demands for bolstered compulsory training for professionals working in the criminal justice system so they understand the gravity of domestic abuse and react to reports in an “appropriate, trauma-informed way”.

Ms Davison added: “Now is the time to prioritise bringing perpetrators to justice and have a relentless focus on improvement across the criminal justice system. Survivors and women experiencing abuse cannot wait for change.”

Louisa Rolfe, National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for domestic abuse and assistant commissioner, said: “Domestic abuse, along with all offences under violence against women and girls, is a priority for policing and we are determined to improve both prosecutions of perpetrators and how we ensure the safety of victims.

“There are complex reasons for the decline in prosecutions, and whilst policing must improve, there are complex root causes for these issues.

“While we acknowledge there are some examples of inadequate responses, there are many dedicated, skilled and compassionate police officers who investigate domestic abuse.”

She said the “first response every victim receives” must “improve” as she stated “evidence-based improvements” have taken place in recent years.

“These include challenging face-to-face training led by domestic abuse charities and survivors and risk assessment tools proven to better identify high-risk perpetrators,” she added. “We also acknowledge the damaging impact of police perpetrators of abuse and we are determined to ensure that abusers do not remain in policing.”

While a spokesperson for the CPS noted they take stalking and domestic abuse “very seriously”, as they warned “offending can take many forms” and technological developments have created yet more ways for abusers to prey on victims.

The representative added: “This is why we’re working closely with the police to identify offending behaviours and build robust cases from the start. We are determined to prosecute these crimes and provide victims and their families with the greatest protection from repeat offending – their safety is paramount.”

Meanwhile, Labour’s Ms Reeves also raised concerns the cost of living crisis was stopping domestic abuse victims from fleeing abusive relationships due to anxiety around finances.

“People are struggling to pay the bills, the rent, the mortgage, food bills, and for many, leaving an abusive relationship, feels like an impossible challenge.”

She cited a charity in her area called Bromley Brighter Beginnings that supports women and children who escape domestic abuse with “absolutely nothing” which has been “inundated with referrals”.

Domestic abuse victims are fleeing with “no buggy, no high chair, literally just a change of clothes, no nappies,” she added.

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