Victims of domestic violence were subjected to a ‘postcode lottery’ as to whether an abuser would ever be arrested, according to the police inspectorate. Whilst most 39 of the 43 police forces in England and Wales had a ‘positive action’ policy’ for domestic abuse and most response officers could explain what it meant, arrest rates varied wildly from 43% to 93% across forces. Seven forces failed to provide data on the number of arrests which was said to be ‘unacceptable’, according to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC).
A previous 2014 report by HMIC was reckoned to be a ‘wake up call’ for the police and their approach to domestic violence. ‘When we first inspected the police response to domestic abuse, we found most forces demonstrated a startling lack of awareness of domestic abuse and inconsistent or poor practice,’ said Zoë Billingham, who led the inspection. She said that there had been a determined effort by forces to ‘make domestic abuse a priority’.
‘The wide variation between forces in all data, but specifically arrest, cautioning and charging rates, continues to be of concern to HMIC. It suggests that victims are still subject to a ‘postcode lottery’ in terms of whether the alleged perpetrator is arrested, cautioned or charged.’
According to the inspectorate, domestic abuse accounted for 10% of all recorded crime and, since the 2014 report, there had been a 31% increase. This was, the inspectorate explained, due to forces ‘getting better at identifying and recording domestic abuse’ and that victims might now be more confident in coming forward.
HMIC called on forces to train all officers and staff to ‘understand and identify the complex dynamics of abuse and coercive control’, and take immediate steps to respond to the significant workloads in specialist public protection teams.
‘Coercive control’ covers a range of tactics used by perpetrators but highlights the ‘on-going nature of the behaviour and the extent to which the actions of the perpetrator control the victim through isolation, intimidation, degradation and microregulation of everyday life’. It makes clear that such abuse can be psychological as well as physical and is now explicitly covered by the definition of ‘domestic abuse’.
The HMIC report came in just two weeks before the government introduces ‘coercive control’ as a new criminal offence, carrying a maximum prison sentence of up to five years.
Speaking to www.thejusticegap.com, PC Jennifer Holton, in charge of strategic planning of support for domestic abuse victims, said the new offence looked at the ‘course of conduct’. ‘Before we relied heavily on victim support and statements from victims, which not only put them in danger, but was often too much emotionally for them,’ she explained. ‘Now we can arrest and prosecute with very little support from the victim. Officers can, after the new offence comes in, stand in court on behalf of the victim, so they will no longer have to face their offender.’
Menwhile, in a separate report HMIC graded all 43 forces as to how effectively they protected vulnerable people from harm and support victims: only 12 forces were judged ‘good’; 27 forces needed improvement; and four were ‘inadequate’. No force was judged to be outstanding.
Mark Castle, chief executive of Victim Support, argued that the findings supported the case for legislation to bolster the rights of victims. He said: ‘When, as the report says, even ‘small failures may have tragic consequences’, it is clearer than ever that, in order for vulnerable victims to get the support that they need and deserve, their rights must be enshrined in a new Victims’ Law which is robustly enforced to deliver real improvements on the ground.’
Additional reporting by Brooke Perriam
Jon is editor of the Justice Gap. He is a freelance journalist. Jon's books include The First Miscarriage of Justice (Waterside Press, 2014), The Justice Gap (LAG, 2009) and People Power (Daily Telegraph/LawPack, 2008). Jon is a journalism lecturer at Winchester University and a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln. He is twice winner of the Bar Council's journalism award (2015 and 2005) and is shortlisted for this year's Criminal Justice Alliance's journalism award