Note: see correction regarding this paragraph.
90.A 2013 HMIC inspection report on the police response to domestic abuse highlighted failings in police culture, attitude and skills. In response, the Home Office established a national group to oversee a domestic abuse improvement plan and new guidance, training and data collection. DCC Rolfe told us that police forces generally now had a good level of understanding of domestic abuse and had got better at responding, arresting, and taking positive action to deal with perpetrators and ensuring victims were safe. She said that the Authorised Profession Practice (APP) guidance issued by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) addressed the police service’s core responsibilities to protect victims, to prosecute offenders, and also to take action to prevent offending.
91.The College of Policing told us that its day long vulnerability training course is compulsory for new recruits and as part of investigation training for CID officers, and was delivered to 9,500 officers and staff in 2017/18; on 9 October 2018 the course was released to all police forces for use locally and to support continuing professional development. The course uses case studies which guide responses to vulnerability issues including domestic abuse and stalking. The College has also worked with SafeLives to produce a further day long training course specifically on domestic abuse, which focuses on sharing knowledge about coercive and controlling behaviour. To date this has been delivered by SafeLives in a small number of forces, and will be rolled out to “many more … over the next few months”.
92.The CPS Violence against Women and Girls Report 2017–18 indicates that numbers of prosecutions and convictions remained broadly steady between 2016–17 and 2017–18, with some progress in rates of charge or prosecution in respect of newer stalking offences and offences of controlling or coercive behaviour:
93.The 2017 HMICFRS inspection report on the police response to domestic abuse concluded that, while many police forces recognise they still have further to go to provide the best possible service to victims of domestic abuse, the Inspectorate was “pleased with the progress being made”. The report noted the demands placed on police forces:
In England and Wales, there is an unrelenting and increasing demand for the police to respond to incidents of domestic abuse. The total number of reported domestic abuse crimes has increased from 353,063 in the 12 months to March 2015, to 434,095 in the 12 months to June 2016. This represents a 23 percent increase in a year. For the 12 months to 30 June 2016, domestic abuse-related crime made up just over 11 percent of all recorded crime and represented 33 percent of all recorded crimes that involved assault with injury. This is at a time when the police service is under a range of pressures across several crime types.
94.The Inspectorate identified the following six areas as requiring improvement in the police response to domestic abuse: risk assessment; following guidance on taking positive action when dealing with domestic abuse incidents; working with domestic abuse services to build the best possible cases for victims; working closely with the CPS to understand when cases should be referred to the CPS; providing a thorough police response from the first point of contact with victims of domestic abuse; and consistent performance measures.
95.More recently, 2018 crime data integrity inspection reports have found that some police forces under-record reports of domestic violence. The Cleveland Police inspection report noted that the “process for identifying domestic violence incidents as crimes and assessing the correct closure of such incidents within the force control room does not support accurate crime recording”. It said that “the absence of a crime record resulted in fewer than a quarter of these reports of crime being investigated, and that only around a quarter of victims received adequate safeguarding, thereby increasing the potential risk of harm to the victim”.
96.Witnesses agreed that further improvements in the police response were required. Refuge stated that “Dismissive attitudes to domestic abuse continue to exist amongst some police officers and a lack of understanding of coercive control remains a major issue”. Victim Support said that there was a need for the police to treat survivors with more empathy; to take reports more seriously and believe survivors; to ensure that there are better referrals to specialist support services; to deal more robustly with the perpetrator; to improve risk assessment and safety planning; and to improve evidence gathering.
97.Sian Hawkins explained that domestic abuse was “a huge part” of the daily work of the police, and said that there was a need for all police staff to have training on identifying and responding to domestic abuse, particularly on coercion and control, and understanding the non-physical types of abuse that women and children might be experiencing. Pragna Patel agreed that there was too much variation in police response to domestic violence, and said that there were still instances of poor practice ranging from “not recognising domestic violence or trivialising or minimising it to the other end of the spectrum where women who were reporting domestic violence were actually being arrested, detained and criminalised”. She suggested that there was a need for more robust accountability measures and a more robust complaints system.
98.DCC Rolfe said that in her view there was now a robust accountability framework for the police service. She accepted that the police could continue to improve its response to domestic abuse, but said that greater scrutiny of the response of other agencies, “whether that is teachers, GPs, midwives or social workers” would help to provide a consistent response. She pointed out that the police response was “hugely dependent” on the response of others, both from other statutory agencies and also the support sector, and told us that her priority would be for “a consistent, comprehensive, intelligent response from all statutory agencies that is underpinned and supported by a sustainable support sector in domestic abuse”.
99.Witnesses expressed particular concern about the police response to victims of domestic abuse with insecure immigration status. Women’s Aid stated that a Freedom of Information request had indicated that over half (27) of police forces in England and Wales confirmed that they shared victims’ details with the Home Office for immigration control purposes. In our Windrush report, we recommended that the obligation on police to share data of victims of crime with immigration enforcement should be removed immediately. In its response, the Government said that there was no legal obligation on the police to share data on victims of crime with immigration enforcement, but that it was “clearly appropriate in some cases to do so”. It explained that:
Our immediate priority is to ensure that all vulnerable migrants, including those in the UK illegally, receive the support and assistance they need regardless of their immigration status. We are clear that victims of crime must be treated first and foremost as victims. …
The sharing of information between the police and immigration system helps us to protect vulnerable people in a range of circumstances including ensuring that we provide accommodation for asylum seekers and keeping unaccompanied migrant children safe.
100.The End Violence Against Women coalition said that “the hostile environment immigration policy has been weaponised by abusers and can result in women being treated as immigration offenders when they seek safety or report crimes”. It recommended that:
The statutory definition of domestic violence should recognise that threats concerning women’s immigration status, and control of documents and application processes, can be part of domestic violence and abuse; and that fear of their and their children’s deportation is a key barrier which stops migrant women being able to report and seek protection and justice. Protection of women facing abuse should be put clearly before any immigration enforcement, and there should be a “firewall” between all critical public services and immigration control policies.
101.Evidence indicates that the police response to victims of domestic abuse is improving, but that there are instances where victims’ claims of abuse are not taken seriously, where they do not receive an appropriate police response and where police forces do not follow national guidance on recording or responding to reports of domestic abuse incidents. These failings can have catastrophic consequences for victims of abuse.
102.We were particularly concerned to hear evidence that many police forces share details of victims with the Home Office for the purposes of immigration control. Immigration status itself is used by perpetrators of domestic abuse as a means to coerce and control. Victims of abuse with uncertain immigration status are particularly vulnerable because they can have difficulties in accessing financial support and refuge and other support services, so they have few options for escaping from abuse.
103.Insecure immigration status must not bar victims of abuse from protection and access to justice. The Government states that its immediate priority is to ensure that all vulnerable migrants, including those in the UK illegally, receive the support and assistance they need regardless of their immigration status. It must ensure that the police service conforms with this objective.
104.The Government’s consultation sought views on measures which would improve victims’ experience of the justice system. The Government aims to ensure that victims come forward and support prosecutions through to their conclusion, and that individuals in the family court system receive the support and protection they require.
105.The CPS told us that domestic abuse victims encounter many difficulties when they decide to engage with the justice system, and that these include: the complexities of the criminal justice system; lack of and inconsistent communication from criminal justice agencies; delays in cases passing through the criminal justice system; and fear of facing the perpetrator within the court. A recent report commissioned by the police and crime commissioner for Northumbria, Dame Vera Baird QC, suggested that defendants in specialist domestic violence courts in the north-east of England were “gaming the system” by intimidating partners into not appearing in the expectation that magistrates would then drop charges. It suggested that defendants, almost all men, continued to exert coercive control over their victims through the mechanism of the courts system.
106.The question of whether restorative justice is ever appropriate in cases of domestic abuse was considered by the Justice Select Committee in its 2016 on Restorative Justice. The Committee concluded in principle that restorative justice should be available for all types of offence but recognised that there were clear risks for certain types of offence, including domestic abuse, and that there was a need for training and guidelines to help promote the use of safe restorative justice in such cases. In response to the Committee’s recommendations, the MoJ confirmed cross-government consensus that ‘Level One’ restorative justice is not appropriate for cases of domestic abuse involving intimate partner abuse. The MoJ is leading discussions to create a more detailed cross-government action plan which will outline the criteria for any potential use, including safety issues and risk assessments. Witnesses told us that Restorative Justice was not an appropriate response for stalking and domestic abuse cases. Laura Richards described it as “dangerous” and Rachel Griffin explained that it risked providing perpetrators with an opportunity to continue their manipulation, power and control over victims.
107.The charity Respect, which works with perpetrators of domestic abuse, described a lack of consistency across the justice system in its treatment of victims of domestic abuse, saying that:
There are currently multiple possible remedies across criminal, civil and family courts, but little coherence between them. We are aware of cases where one court has undermined another (for example the family court has issued contact without reference to bail conditions or a protective order). We are also aware of the lack of enforcement of breaches which undermines the whole process.
Women’s Aid agreed, stating that “survivors are slipping between the cracks between the two court systems–where a perpetrator of domestic abuse is seen as a violent criminal in the criminal courts, but a ‘good enough’ parent in the family courts”.
108.Much of the evidence we received on justice issues described concerns about child contact proceedings in the family courts. Many people told us about their personal experiences, sometimes in confidence, in the hope that this would help prevent others experiencing similar difficulties and trauma in the future. We appreciate how difficult it must be to share such distressing experiences, which no one should have to go through. While we have not published all the details of these powerful testimonies, they have affected our understanding and impacted upon our consideration of the issues.
109.One of the key issues raised by witnesses was the cross-examination of victims of abuse by perpetrators and alleged perpetrators. Siân Hawkins explained that the lack of legal representation for women who were not eligible for legal aid meant that cross-examination of victims of abuse by the perpetrator was happening routinely in family courts. She explained that means testing for legal aid often included assets and savings that the victim of domestic abuse no longer had any access to but which was still included within the calculations. A Queen Mary School of Law research study commissioned by Women’s Aid found that one of the long-lasting effects of going through family courts for a survivor of domestic abuse was that their family finances and resources had been significantly depleted. A significant amount of the work of Southall Black Sisters was trying to access pro bono support for women who could not access legal aid.
110.The Equality and Human Rights Commission stated that in the first three quarters of 2017, 3,234 (27%) of applicants in domestic abuse cases were unrepresented, compared with 1,309 (16%) for the same period in 2012. Refuge recommended that cross-examination by perpetrators and alleged perpetrators in the family courts be prohibited urgently and said that if earlier legislative time could not be found, then the Domestic Abuse Bill should prohibit this practice.
111.Another issue raised was the lack of special protection measures in family courts. Criminal courts can offer protection measures such as separate entrances and exits, separate waiting rooms, screens and video links, but victims of domestic abuse may have to endure direct contact with their abuser when they attend child contact proceedings in the family court. The Equality and Human Rights Commission pointed out that family courts often lack the special measures that are available in the criminal courts and that women may be followed or harassed when leaving court.
112.There is also evidence that family court child contact orders take insufficient account of the history of domestic abuse and place victims of abuse and their children at risk. Siân Hawkins called for a change in how contact is ordered in the family court cases so that there is no automatic assumption of unsupervised contact with a known perpetrator of domestic abuse where there are bail proceedings or court proceedings still ongoing for domestic abuse-related offences.
113.The Queen Mary School of Law research into family courts concluded that:
Our findings highlighted clear safeguarding gaps around child contact, both for children and non-abusive parents. In some of the cases in our sample, allegations of child abuse appeared to have been outweighed by a pro-contact approach. In addition, survivors of domestic abuse had been expected to place themselves in very dangerous situations in order to facilitate contact between their child and their former partner.
The report called for the Ministry of Justice and the President of the Family Division to clarify that the presumption in the Children and Families Act 2014 (that the welfare of the child is best served by the involvement of both parents) does not apply where there is evidence of domestic abuse. It also recommended that the Judicial College, the Magistrates Association and HMCTS should continue with and expand their current educational provisions to ensure that all family court professionals have specialist training on interpreting the guidance on child contact arrangements in cases where domestic abuse is involved.
114.The Magistrates Association (MA) acknowledged that victims of domestic abuse can find the family justice system particularly challenging, but suggested that there have been some recent improvements:
Previous research has identified problems including a lack of understanding about domestic abuse amongst justice professionals (including the fact domestic abuse should be considered as child abuse), lack of support (both before court and during proceedings) and court orders which exacerbate the fear and distress of the women (such as requiring contact with an abusive partner). However the MA would note that there have been a number of positive changes over the last 6 months: especially the publication of the amended Practice Direction 12J (which makes it clear that it should no longer be presumed that children should have contact with parents who are perpetrators of domestic abuse), the new Practice Direction 3AA to support vulnerable witnesses and the changes to ensure victims of domestic abuse are exempt from attending mediation before coming to court.
The MA believes further change is needed, especially in relation to provision of legal aid support for victims, ensuring special measures (such as separate entrances and waiting rooms as well as screens) are available in family court and legislative change to ensure victims are not cross-examined by their abusers.
115.We heard evidence that there is a lack of consistency in the way in which criminal and family courts treat the seriousness and impact of domestic abuse, with family courts tending to prioritise contact with both parents even when there has been a criminal conviction for violence, or a history of other domestic abuse.
116.Restorative justice is not appropriate for crimes involving coercion and control of victims, because it provides perpetrators with a further opportunity to continue their abusive behaviour. The Government must update its Restorative Justice Action Plan so as to provide clear direction that restorative justice is not an option for stalking and domestic abuse cases given the clear risks of restorative justice for these types of offence.
117.Witnesses described family court proceedings for victims of domestic abuse as traumatising and harrowing. It is unacceptable that navigating the justice system can be as distressing for some victims as the abusive behaviour which they are seeking to escape, and that children may be placed in danger because of a lack of coherence between different parts of the justice system. We are very concerned about the evidence of safeguarding gaps in the family courts, highlighted by the evidence of Professor Shazia Choudhry. We urge the President of the Family Division to consider what further steps are necessary to ensure practice in the family courts fully recognises the paramount importance of the welfare of the child as set out in section 1(1) of the Children Act 1989, and the safeguards to protect children from any harm that might arise through parental contact which are set out in section 1(6) of the Act, as amended by the Children and Families Act 2014.
118.Improvements would include better sharing of information, and training. We recommend that all judges, magistrates and professionals involved in child contact cases in the family court receive specialist training on domestic abuse, coercive control and on the provisions of Practice Direction 12J.
119.We have particular concerns about the impact on children of court proceedings, and the lack of co-ordinated support for them. There is a need for more specialist children’s workers who are trained to recognise the impact of domestic abuse on children, and to ensure that the relevant statutory organisations respond to their needs. We recommend that the new Commissioner should have, as a priority in the first year of office, to review the impact upon children of the interaction between the family courts, children’s services, CAFCASS and the police, with particular reference to contact arrangements in domestic violence cases.
120.On 6 March 2018 the then Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Dr Philip Lee MP, advised the House that the draft domestic abuse bill would address the unacceptable “abuse and coercion of females, invariably by males, through the court process”. The bill must prohibit the cross-examination of a victim by an alleged perpetrator of domestic abuse in the family court.
124 College of Policing, ‘Authorised professional practice on domestic abuse’
127 Crown Prosecution Service, Violence against Women and Girls Report 2017–18, September 2018:
128 Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services, A progress report on the police response to domestic abuse, November 2017:
129 Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services, ‘Cleveland Police: Crime Data Integrity inspection 2018’, 7 August 2018:
137 Home Affairs Committee, Sixth Report of Session 2017–19, The Windrush generation, HC 990, 3 July 2018:
138 Home Affairs Committee, Seventh Special Report of Session 2017–19, The Windrush generation: Government Response to the Committee’s Sixth Report of Session 2017–19, HC 1545, 4 September 2018
140 HM Government, Transforming the Response to Domestic Abuse: Government Consultation, 8 March 2018, p47
142 Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria, Specialist Domestic Violence Courts – How special are they?, July 2018:
143 Crown Prosecution Service, Violence against Women and Girls Report 2017–18, September 2018; This report explained that “Level One restorative justice is for minor crimes – it is often referred to as ‘street’ RJ and includes community resolutions where an informal agreement is made between the parties”. .
148 Women’s Aid and Queen Mary University of London, “What about my right not to be abused?”: Domestic abuse, human rights and the family courts, 30 May 2018
154 Women’s Aid and Queen Mary University of London, “What about my right not to be abused?”: Domestic abuse, human rights and the family courts, 30 May 2018
157 HC Deb, 6 March 2018, [Commons Chamber]
Published: 22 October 2018