Embedding change in the UK justice system’s response to domestic violence.
In 2008, Cassie Hasanovic, 24, was brutally stabbed to death by her husband, in front of her two young sons, outside her mother’s home in a small village on the south coast of England. In February 2014, an inquest jury found that she had been unlawfully killed and that the Sussex police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) had both failed to take steps which would have safeguarded her life.
Carrie is just one of millions of women in the UK who are being failed by a criminal justice system that does not take domestic violence as seriously as other crimes. In 2011/12, 1.2 million women in the UK reported having experienced domestic abuse (Office of National Statistics). The police receive a call for assistance relating to domestic abuse every 30 seconds and in 2012/13 referred over 800,000 cases to the CPS. The Centre for Social Justice, an independent think tank, puts the annual cost to society of domestic abuse in Britain at £15.7 billion.
“Two women are killed by their partner or ex each week. If this happened at football games there would be a national outcry.”
UK shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, BBC Radio 4, July 2014
A damning report published by Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary (HMIC) in March this year condemned police services for treating domestic abuse as “a poor relation” to other police activity and concluded that only 8 out of 43 services responded well to domestic violence. The report found “alarming and unacceptable weaknesses” in core policing activity, in particular, in the quality of the initial investigation where basic investigative techniques were not applied – such as a failure to take photographs of injuries in 600 domestic abuse cases involving bodily harm. It concluded that serious failings in policing were putting women and children at “unnecessary risk.”
Assistance Chief Constable Louise Rolfe, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) lead on domestic abuse, said the police faced significant challenges in this area of operations: “Our challenge is not an easy one. We grapple with a staggering level of acceptance of domestic abuse in our communities and a genuine reluctance from victims to come forward in the face of a very traditional justice system that doesn’t recognise the complex and very personal impact on those individuals who do come forward.” The former DPP, Sir Kier Starmer QC, who worked hard to improve the response of the CPS to domestic violence during his tenure, put the numbers reporting abuse at only 1 in 4, and women reporting serious assault at less than 1 in 10.
The police have been accused of reinforcing community acceptance of violence against women by their widespread use of out-of-court settlements for thousands of cases of domestic abuse. So-called “community resolutions” were only intended for low-level disputes but have now been used in 10,000 cases since 2010 (according to Labour statistics), despite guidance from the CPS that they are rarely suitable for incidents of domestic violence.
With such public scrutiny being brought to bear on the police and criminal justice system around this issue, it is good news that the CPS Violence against Women & Girls Crime Report 2014 recorded an increase in domestic violence referrals by the police; prosecutions by the CPS; and conviction rates. The fact that conversely rape conviction rates fell has prompted a new action plan.
But while these figures may suggest a trend of improvement, perhaps a more radical shake-up is required in order to bring a true turn-around in police culture. Scotland, for example, has taken a different approach by establishing a Domestic Abuse Task Force. This elite unit of investigators tackle domestic abuse in the same way detectives would a homicide and specifically target serial domestic attackers. Last Christmas, the chief of the Scotland-wide force Sir Stephen House sent a video message to perpetrators that is one that should be repeated across the UK: “This is a crime. It’s not a private matter. You are an offender and you will be dealt with as an offender… The fact that it happens behind closed doors is not an escape.”
Only by matching police and criminal justice system practices in the UK with this rhetoric can we change a culture of acceptance or worse – the failure to recognise domestic abuse as a serious crime. And only when we stop blaming the victim and instead hold the perpetrator accountable will progress really be sustained. As the Guardian newspaper’s women’s editor wrote in a blog last year: “Few crimes suffer from so many myths and stereotypes as violence against women, where victims are often treated as complicit in their abuse and somehow culpable. My god, even a 13-year old girl was described as “predatory” and therefore responsible.”
Sisters For Change works to end social acceptance of violence against women and girls, to educate women on their rights and to hold states legally accountable. We will launch in the UK in 2015. To extend our work, we need your help. Support us today to help women in the UK and beyond.