Written evidence submitted by Transform Justice (COR0022)
- Transform Justice is a national charity that works for a fair, humane, open and effective justice system. We have produced reports on issues such as digital court reform, adult and child remand, and the use of out of court disposals. In 2018 we published a report on the current criminal justice response to domestic abuse. The report challenges the government’s increased focus on prosecution, restrictive orders and harsher sentences, which evidence shows do not reduce abuse or help victims in the long-term.
Prevalence of domestic abuse during coronavirus lockdown
- We support moves by the police to be alert to, and prepared for, a potential increase in domestic abuse due to lockdown. The scene is unfortunately set for such an increase. However there is not yet clear evidence that domestic abuse police reports are increasing under lockdown. Senior police told the Home Office preparedness for coronavirus inquiry last week that there had not been a rise in reported domestic abuse incidents since the stay at home guidance was enforced. But Refuge has reported calls to their helpline have increased by 25% and website visits are up by 150% compared to last year. So far it is difficult to determine whether the increased calls to charities will translate into an increase in requests for police to attend incidents and in greater need for refuge beds nationwide.
- Whether or not police reports of domestic abuse are increasing under covid conditions, domestic abuse is always a scourge on society and creates serious harm. So it makes sense to make additional funding available to ensure service providers are prepared. We support initiatives that will ensure those at risk of or experiencing domestic abuse can still access support services, the provision of which appears to have been negatively affected by coronavirus. Women’s Aid report that 84% of local domestic abuse services are having to reduce or cancel one or more of their services, possibly due to staff absences or work from home restrictions. Jess Phillips MP reported a shortage of accommodation for women who have no other option but to leave their home to avoid abuse. Funding may be needed to ensure support services can continue to meet the needs of women experiencing abuse, adapting their provision if necessary, and to ensure that alternative accommodation is available.
Measures to reduce or avert domestic abuse – overuse of arrest
- Transform Justice advocates for a fair and effective criminal justice system and has raised concerns previously about the overuse of arrest for domestic abuse cases. Our concern is that enthusiasm to ‘do something’ about domestic abuse during covid conditions may translate into greater pressure on police to arrest suspected perpetrators and pursue criminal justice sanctions. The evidence for the effectiveness of this approach has not changed:
- the evidence for arrest leading to a reduction in abuse is weak and international evidence shows that criminal sanctions do not reduce abuse
- police attendance at the property appears to result in modest reduction in revictimisation but there is no evidence that arrest is beneficial over and above attendance
- police forces are already under pressure from the police inspectorate and the College of Policing to arrest in domestic abuse cases. In cases where police officers don’t make an arrest, they are required to justify why they haven’t. In some forces, targets are in place requiring police officers to make an arrest for a certain percentage of domestic incident calls
- Arrest can create a ‘space for action’ for the victim, a window of opportunity during which referrals can be made and specialist support services can be engaged. Arrest and prosecution can prevent serious harm to the victim. But in certain cases where “space for action” is needed, it may be possible to provide it without using arrest. Every case needs to be risk-assessed. However blanket targets for arrest are counterproductive. There are ill-informed people in every force, but police attitudes to domestic abuse have reformed. Police officers make mistakes, and many haven’t had enough training (particularly in coercive control), but most take domestic abuse very seriously. Trained frontline officers should be supported to use their discretion to decide the best response based on their judgement of the situation.
- What should police do instead? Victims need more support to stay safely in their own homes or to be rehoused (if they want to), to report abuse and to leave abusive relationships. The most serious offences need to be prosecuted but for some perpetrators and victims, out of court disposals can offer a way of dealing with usually low level and often first time offending in a proportionate way. Many victims would rather not go to court – record numbers are withdrawing from the court process. Some victims will be unwilling because they are being coercively controlled. This needs risk assessing and appropriate action taking – which may be arrest and prosecution. But out of court disposals may be appropriate in some lower level cases. A 2011 study found that more victims were “satisfied” or “extremely satisfied” with the out of court disposal, compared to those where the offender went to court. Evidence also shows that out of court disposals are usually more effective than court disposals in reducing offending. The conditional caution Cara programme (offered to those who have been apprehended for less serious domestic abuse for the first time) showed significant reductions in the harm caused by those involved.
Measures to reduce or avert domestic abuse – Domestic Violence Protection Orders
- We anticipate police may be encouraged to make greater use of Domestic Violence Protection Orders (DVPOs) as a solution. DVPOs are civil orders that can provide protection to alleged victims by putting in place protective measures in the immediate aftermath of a domestic violence incident where there is insufficient evidence to charge. Measures may include relocating the alleged perpetrator to alternative accommodation. However alleged perpetrators are currently less likely to have an alternative address to go to, due to many homes being in isolation and a shortage of local authority accommodation.
- DVPOs may in some cases appropriate but there is also little evidence to show that DVPOs will reduce abuse or effectively protect victims. The evaluation of the pilot DVPO showed reduced reoffending only when compared to cases where no further action was taken. No comparison was made to out of court disposals and other approaches. The evaluation also found that the DVPO only reduced reoffending in more serious cases, where the police had been called out three or more times before the order was imposed.
- A DVPO can provide victims with some breathing space and time to regroup. But more understanding is needed of cases where it can be effective and when it is not effective before it is promoted across police forces. We therefore caution against greater use of DVPOs s as part of any police response to this current situation.