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Progress report on police response to domestic abuse causes concern

Date:15 NOV 2017
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Organisations working to support victims of domestic abuse have expressed concerns over a progress report on police response to such abuse, saying it demonstrates that forces are struggling to cope with the rising levels of abuse recorded and that little appears to have changed for victims. Refuge and Women's Aid said the report underlined the urgent need for the law reform proposed within the Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill, announced in the Queen's Speech in June.

The report, based upon the inspection findings of HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS’s) from 2016, is the third in a series of thematic reports considering the response to victims of domestic abuse by the police service.

HMICFRS’s first report in the series was published in March 2014, and found significant shortcomings in the policing response to domestic abuse.

In 2015, a second inspection found the police service had come to see tackling domestic abuse as a priority. However, HMICFRS also found that there were still a number of areas for improvement in the way that the police respond to victims of domestic abuse.

The most recent report finds there have been considerable improvements in the system since 2014, with victims now being better supported and better protected. However, improvement is required in the following areas:

  • risk assessment—although risk assessment is improving in general, forces still use a range of different and inconsistent practices when assessing risk, which potentially means victims might receive different levels of service across England and Wales;
  • positive action and the role of arrest—some officers have a misguided belief that their actions in not arresting a perpetrator are ‘victim-focused’. Officers need clear direction on early arrest;
  • build the case for the victim—domestic abuse victims are often reluctant to support a prosecution. Clear standards must be set for building the best possible case for the victim, to increase the likelihood of a victim working with the criminal justice process;
  • a shared view with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) on referrals and prosecutions—forces need to work closely with the CPS to understand when cases should be referred;
  • some forces are better than others at their response to domestic abuse. The police service needs to understand each element of its response to ensure it is effective;
  • some forces still do not record their performance relating to domestic abuse in a consistent way. Force leaders should use data more effectively to monitor performance.
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The report recommends:

  • the National Oversight Group should continue to monitor and report on the progress made in implementing new recommendations, as well as those outstanding from previous reports;
  • national domestic abuse data monitoring should be continued and the data expanded to enable a more thorough analysis of how domestic abuse is dealt with in a force area; and
  • by April 2018, every police force in England and Wales should update its domestic abuse action plan, determine what more it can do to address the areas for further improvement highlighted in this report, and publish its revised action plan accordingly.
The report can be read in full here.

Responding to the report, Sandra Horley, CBE, chief executive of Refuge, says:

‘[T]he report makes for very grim reading. Refuge is deeply concerned that despite an abundance of good intentions and training initiatives, little appears to have changed for victims of domestic abuse. We are particularly worried to discover that there has been a fall in the number of arrests made and referrals to the Crown Prosecution Service. It is abundantly clear that the current policy of police discretion in cases of domestic violence is not working and that the abuse of women is still not being taken seriously by the police. Judgmental, negative and sexist attitudes towards abused women are deeply entrenched in police culture and society as a whole. It is clear we need massive radical change.

Refuge, like the police, has experienced an increase in demand without a corresponding increase in resources. We are overstretched and need additional support for services including the national domestic violence helpline which is under threat. In spite of this, we continue to provide a safe, compassionate and responsive service to 6,000 women and children on any given day. These victims need and deserve police protection. This should not be discretionary.

Refuge has been calling for a mandatory arrest and charge policy where there are reasonable grounds in cases of domestic violence, as in Canada.

It is timely that the Government is introducing a new Domestic Violence Bill. It is crucial that violence against women and girls is made explicit on the face of the Bill and that it is finally treated with the seriousness that it deserves.

Refuge is pleased that the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, is continuing to bring national oversight to the issue of police response to domestic violence.’

Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, said:

‘It is vital that survivors are listened to, believed and supported when they report domestic abuse to the police. [The report] shows that police leaders have prioritised transforming the response to domestic abuse, but there is still work to be done.

It takes a lot of strength and resolve for a woman to build up the courage to report domestic abuse to the police. It is therefore vital that she gets an effective response the first time she calls out for help. Training and investment in some police force areas has transformed their response, but today’s report shows that many still need improvement. There are huge variations between forces in how the police use their powers to hold perpetrators to account and keep victims safe, including a postcode lottery when it comes to arresting perpetrators of domestic abuse.

The level of domestic abuse recorded by the police has increased by 60% in less than three years, according to today’s report, and this is only set to rise as more survivors have to courage to speak out. It is clear that forces are struggling to cope and it is devastating to see dangerous responses when survivors have called out for help, such as assessing risk over the phone and downgrading the severity of cases to justify a slower response time. This is unacceptable. Such practices threaten to put more women and children’s lives at risk.

The Government’s landmark Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill promises to transform our national response to domestic abuse and ensure more victims have the courage to speak out. This new law must be underpinned by sufficient resources both for statutory agencies, such as the police, and specialist domestic abuse services, including refuges which are currently under threat by proposed funding reforms. Without a sustainable long-term funding solution for these life-saving services, the lives of women and children trying to escape domestic abuse will be put at risk. A successful police and criminal justice response to domestic abuse must both hold perpetrators accountable and keep women and children safe.’