“It’s a domestic – we don’t get involved in domestics.”
That, or something very similar, would have been the response of most police officers called to a domestic abuse incident back in the 1980s, when I began practising. The police weren’t interested, leaving victims of domestic abuse to seek their own remedies, through the civil courts.
How times have changed. Victims can still seek their own remedies, but nowadays the police, and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), take a rather different attitude to the issue of domestic abuse.
The change was evidenced this week, with the publication of the tenth annual edition of the CPS’s Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) report, for 2016-17. Obviously, much of the content of the report does not relate directly to family matters, but there are a number of statistics that are of particular interest.
Firstly, the report tells us that in 2016-17 domestic abuse, rape and sexual offences accounted for 19.3 per cent of the CPS’s total caseload. This is up from just 7.1 per cent in 2007-08, a very significant increase. And of that 19.3 per cent, more than 80 per cent of those crimes were domestic abuse related. In short, domestic abuse crimes have risen from what was probably an insignificantly small percentage of the caseload of the CPS when it began operating in 1986 to nearly a sixth of its caseload now.
In terms of numbers, there were 70,853 convictions for domestic abuse related offences in 2016-17, up from 43,977 in 2007-08. Even accounting for repeat offenders, that is by any account a large number of people being punished for domestic abuse, surely sending out a clear message that society will not tolerate such crimes – in clear contrast to the situation back in the 1980s.
By way of comparison, the number of applications to the civil (i.e. family) courts for non-molestation and occupation orders over the last year (July 2016 – June 2017) was 24,160, with a total of 26,475 orders being made (non-molestation and occupation orders being counted separately). In other words, the burden of dealing with domestic abuse has moved from the civil to the criminal courts. Whereas previously it was virtually a matter exclusively for the civil courts, now it is primarily a matter for the criminal courts.
The CPS report is not all good news, though. The report shows a decrease in domestic abuse prosecutions and convictions compared with 2015-16, following a two-year fall in referrals of domestic abuse from the police to the CPS. The CPS say that ‘cross-governmental work with the police is underway to address this fall’.
Leaving that point aside, the question must be: is it a good thing that domestic abuse is now primarily being dealt with by the criminal justice system?
Personally, I think the answer is ‘yes’, for two main reasons.
Firstly, as mentioned above, it sends out a clear message to potential abusers: society will not tolerate your actions. What was once swept under the carpet is now out in the open: domestic abuse is a crime. This must surely be the ultimate way to deter anyone from abusing their partner, and one would hope that it will ultimately result in a significant reduction in the incidence of domestic abuse.
The second reason is a point I have raised here before. Back in January 2015 I said this:
“When I was practising I was always worried that a domestic violence injunction was just a piece of paper and that, unlike the presence of a police officer or two, it was unlikely to deter the determined abuser. Hopefully, the full involvement of the police and the criminal justice system will help to discourage abusers and reduce the scourge of domestic violence.”
Let us hope that this turns out to be the case, that abusers are discouraged and that victims are better protected.
Photo by Øyvind Wahl via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence.