When I began practising as a family lawyer back in the early 1980s the attitude of the police towards domestic violence was generally an unwillingness to become involved, as if what happened in the privacy of people’s homes was none of their business. “We don’t do domestics” would be the response. Accordingly, victims were pretty much left to their own devices to deal with the problem. Their first port of call would be their local family lawyer, rather than their local bobby, and the matter would be dealt with by way of a civil court injunction, rather than criminal prosecution.
How times have changed. Nowadays the police recognise domestic violence for the crime that it is and will, or should, respond to it as urgently as for other types of offences against the person. Consequently, the police have become the first port of call for victims, with the role of the criminal courts largely superseding the civil courts.
But domestic violence is a complex issue. In fact, it often doesn’t involve physical violence at all, hence the term ‘domestic abuse’ is generally favoured today. This complex nature of the issue has led to the police in England and Wales being issued with specific guidance on the subject. The latest incarnation of this guidance is the authorised professional practice (APP) on domestic abuse, which consolidates and updates the previous guidance.
I have been having a look at the APP. It is quite a lengthy document, so I can’t give a detailed commentary of it here. Instead, I will give a general overview and pick out a few sections that I think might be of particular interest.
The APP is divided into thirteen sections, covering such topics as what constitutes domestic abuse, offences associated with domestic abuse, risk identification and assessment, first response to a domestic abuse incident, prosecution and alternatives, investigation and victim support. It does certainly seem to provide a comprehensive coverage of the subject.
As has already been reported here, one of the primary factors behind the updating of the guidance was the new Home Office definition of domestic violence and abuse, which recognises the significance of controlling or coercive behaviour in better understanding domestic abuse. This is reflected in the APP by an expansion of the topic beyond the Home Office definition of coercive behaviour, explaining further what it is and giving a number of useful examples, such as constant criticism, possessive behaviour, restricting access to communications and even manipulating the police, for example scene-setting or getting into character before they arrive, reinforcing the victim’s fear that they will not be believed.
The list of possible offences associated with domestic abuse is also interesting. Alongside the expected offences such as assault, battery, GBH and so on, we also have such things as child destruction (violence resulting in miscarriage), fear or provocation of violence, malicious communications and revenge pornography.
Following on from that list is a section dealing with that aspect of domestic abuse that can so baffle those who are lucky enough never to have suffered it: why victims continue in abusive relationships. An understanding of this is essential for anyone dealing with domestic abuse, particularly where the victim is reluctant to take action against their abuser.
The section ends with this truism:
“It is not the responsibility of the victim to leave, but of the perpetrator to stop abusing. Domestic abuse perpetrators should be challenged about their behaviour. Perpetrators are able to carry on abusing because they are not robustly challenged. Some are able to recognise the behaviour, challenge themselves, seek help and willingly engage in support activity where available. Many others cannot or do not want to.”
Moving on, the APP includes a quick reference guide for officers who respond to domestic abuse incidents. This includes an exhortation to take positive action, whether by arrest (“Never ask the victim if they want the suspect arrested. That is your decision.”), or other action, including making the victim aware of the option of applying for civil non-molestation and occupation orders.
Much of the rest of the APP deals with the police handling of cases following arrest: charging, investigating, bail etc. As these are aspects of criminal procedure I won’t cover them here. However, it is not of course just about the perpetrator, but also about the victim. The APP therefore includes a detailed section on victim safety and support, including advice on keeping the victim informed, dealing with the common scenario where victims withdraw support for a prosecution and practical advice for victims upon how to keep safe.
The above only scratches the surface of what is, as I’ve said, a pretty comprehensive document on the subject of domestic abuse. It is well thought-out and, if properly used, will certainly improve the police response to domestic abuse. It is also a useful document for anyone dealing with (or subject to) domestic violence, and well worth a read.
If you wish to read it you can do so here.