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You’ve heard the adage that ‘prevention is better than the cure’. In the case of domestic abuse clearly that must ring true. Anyone who works with those at risk of committing this insidious crime is likely to be an unsung hero for the most part because the impact of their work is so difficult to measure.
Domestic abuse can be defined as: ‘Any incident of threatening behaviour, violence or abuse (psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional) between adults, aged 18 or over, who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender’ (ACPO guidance 2008). It remains a huge issue in the UK.
The press has reported widely in the last couple of weeks that there has been a 40% decline in domestic violence since the 1990s. This is probably misleading as the prevalence of domestic abuse is incredibly difficult to measure. This article explores some of the issues when estimating domestic abuse and violence.
This is not the place for a protracted debate on statistics so it will suffice to say that a conservative estimate of 2 million people have experienced domestic abuse in the last year. Also in the past year, domestic abuse has increased.
Preventing domestic abuse, therefore, is not enough. What happens after domestic abuse and violence has occurred is really important.
The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Keith Starmer QC understands this. In his recent speech, he reminded us of the shocking facts that:
The CPS has been leading the way and others have followed. Coordinated Action Against Domestic Abuse (CAADA) for example, has trained over 1400 Independent Domestic Violence Advisers (IDVA) since 1997 some working in specialist domestic violence courts. There is also a cross governmental strategic vision ‘for a society in which no woman or girl has to live in fear of violence’.
The CPS has results to show for its work. Only four years ago it prosecuted 75,000 cases resulting in 52,000 convictions (69%). In 2011/12 it prosecuted 91,000 cases. The conviction rate also increased to 67,000 (73%). The conviction rate still remains lower though than for all violent crimes so there is more to be done.
In a previous speech Domestic Violence: the facts, the issues, the future, the DPP explained that a third of domestic violence cases failed in 2009/10 (over 6,500) because a victim failed to attend court or retracted evidence. The key time for preventing attrition seems to be following criminal charges being brought and before the matter gets to court.
‘Where the CPS can get a case to court, the overwhelming majority of defendants plead guilty, with only a small proportion electing for a trial. Where there are trials, most prosecutions succeed. But the critical problem is persuading victims not to withdraw from the process along the way either by retracting, refusing to give evidence or withdrawing support for the case.’
Starmer’s confirmation of ‘the importance of focussing on ways to support victim engagement and trying to ensure victim safety’ is encouraging. Here, the work of other agencies must also be critically important.
It is concerning then to read research which showed that 230 women, just under 9% of those seeking refuge, were turned away by Women’s Aid on a typical day in 2011 due to lack of space. Proposed changes to welfare benefits may also compound problems for refuge providers.
Coming back to our adage; prevention has its place and so too does the enforcement of the law which is part of the cure. In fact, one might say that strong enforcement of the law is not only a cure but also has a part to play in preventing similar crimes in the future.
It is heartening, without doubt, that the CPS is prosecuting more domestic violence cases and that these result in increased convictions. Its comprehensive approach through strategy and performance management is commendable. The CPS cannot operate in isolation and it is to be hoped that it will continue to lead and that others will follow.