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In her most recent report, the Domestic Abuse Commissioner outlined that the criminal and family justice system is “in chaos”. There is a crisis with cases of domestic violence surging and many survivors left without support. Last year, London’s Victims Commissioner even condemned the family courts for what she said was “state-sanctioned abuse”.
The justice system’s failures are more evident than ever, and it is apparent that survivors of domestic abuse, understandably, place little faith in the courts.
The Understanding Court Support for Victims of Domestic Abuse report from SafeLives and the Domestic Abuse Commissioner makes a number of recommendations intended to tackle these issues head-on. Of course, for many survivors, this review is too little, too late, especially considering that no action has been taken since a similar Ministry of Justice (MoJ) report was released last year.
The pandemic has devastated the lives of many. Statistics show that many more people during this period have been subjected to domestic violence. According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales, between March 2019 and March 2020, 1.6 million women and 757,000 men had experienced domestic abuse. That’s an increase of 7%, and those are just the cases reported to the police. The real number is likely to be much higher, and it is estimated that a survivor is assaulted around 37 times before they report it to the police.
During the same period in the UK, the number of calls to domestic abuse services was up by 49%. The Centre for Women’s Justice states that there were also 16 homicides related to domestic abuse during the first month after “strict social distancing” was enacted. The women’s charity says this figure is the highest in “at least 11 years” and “treble”, the number recorded in 2019.
Last year, the Femicide Census’ fifth report documented that in the last ten years, the number of women killed by men has stayed “distressingly consistent” at between 124 and 168 women killed each year. Its report also found that in 46% of all cases, the perpetrator had a history of violence either against his victim or against other people. On top of this shocking statistic, in 62% of cases, a current or ex-spouse/intimate partner committed the killing.
Despite the surge in domestic abuse cases, there has been what has been called a “chronic lack of action”.
Figures show that three in every four domestic abuse cases in England and Wales are closed without any charge. In 20% of cases, this is due to “evidential difficulties”. Meanwhile, 54.8% of cases are discontinued because the survivor felt “unable to support the prosecution”.
However, speaking to Sky News, Zoe Billingham, inspector of constabulary, argued that often many police officers “aren’t being supervised” and “checked as to whether it’s reasonable” for these cases to be closed. She added: “Sometimes officers aren’t checking with victims that that’s actually what they want, and too often the police are really pushing back on to victims’ decisions that really ought to be taken by the police”.
The reasons behind victim attrition are described as “complex” but include fear induced by intimidation from the perpetrator or their family and lack of faith in the criminal justice process.
Survivors’ lack of faith in the criminal justice process is unfortunately well-founded. The Domestic Abuse Commissioner’s report showed that they receive a complete lack of support and, in some cases, ridicule throughout the process.
It was revealed that 21% of Independent Domestic Violence Advisors (IDVAs) were “prohibited” from supporting survivors in court. The report also points out that this prohibition contradicts the Victim’s Code which outlines that survivors are “entitled to a standard of support at every stage of their journey”. So, this means from the report stage to court and even “beyond” into the “recovery phase”.
Elsewhere, the report highlighted that 71% of survivors received no support from a specialist domestic abuse service or any formal support at all for that matter. It was also found that court support for domestic abuse was, in fact, largely provided by the wider community. Two in five (39%) had to rely on the support of family and friends.
Only 15% of family courts provided dedicated court support, while youth courts provided no dedicated court support. Likewise, just over half (52%) of services with dedicated court support provided bespoke provision for Black, Asian and racially minoritised survivors.
In total, a third (32%) of survivors received no support. The majority of these survivors (89%) were also not made aware that support was available to them.
A disturbing finding revealed within the report was that survivors of domestic abuse are being re-traumatised by the court process and the system meant to protect them.
Specifically, re-traumatisation was said to have occurred due to a “lack of understanding from judges and court officials”. Survivors also feared for their safety and the safety of their children. Concerningly, when it came to family courts, “poor interaction with CAFCASS” caused distress, and many believed that the perpetrator was able to “use the system” for “coercive control”.
One survivor reflected on their experience, saying: “The Family Court process has left me severely traumatised, worse than the DV itself. I was belittled, undermined, exposed to my abusive ex repeatedly, my children were not listened to and it felt like father’s rights trumped mine and negated his history of DV. I’ve never been more frightened and alone in my life”.
Moreover, for those survivors who did receive support, 38% had “negative experiences” due to the attitudes held by criminal justice professionals towards abuse. Commenting on this, another survivor said: “Some judges appear to have little understanding of the trauma attached to victims of DA and attending court. Services should be able to offer feedback, for example recently a judge applauded the perp for saying fathers should see their children, another stated that non mol orders are archaic”.
Elsewhere, the increasing backlog of domestic abuse cases is also reported to be causing “anxiety and pressure” to be placed on survivors, intensifying the trauma they experience. Of course, this is happening at a time when access to counselling and mental health services is massively reduced, and waiting times are longer than ever.
To tackle the crisis head-on, the Domestic Abuse Commissioner has made several recommendations. This includes urging the government to fast-track domestic abuse and sexual violence cases so that legal decisions are made more quickly, reducing the pressure placed on survivors. Moreover, increased provision of ‘Nightingale Courts’ will not only speed things up but ensure that survivors can get justice closer to home. To bolster support for survivors, the report also recommends that the “integral” nature of IDVAS is recognised and more funding is injected into criminal and family courts. This will ensure that IDVA roles are secured for the long term, providing more consistency.
Liz Thompson, Director of External Relations at SafeLives, commented: “Over 10 years of evidence has shown the value of IDVAs in supporting survivors to get safe and recover from their trauma. Our latest research for the Domestic Abuse Commissioner has found that sadly a majority of victims aren’t receiving this crucial support in relation to the court system despite the clear benefits for criminal justice outcomes and enhanced safeguarding within the family justice system”.
She added: “We wholeheartedly support the Commissioner’s calls for IDVAs to be seen as an integral part of the support victims should be entitled to receive no matter which court they are having to attend”.
Notably, the report highlights that a significant cultural change is needed within the court system. Current attitudes mean that there’s a distinct lack of sensitivity around these issues, which inflicts unnecessary and unhelpful emotional pressure on survivors. To ensure that courts are “trauma-informed,” the report recommends that all professionals in the judiciary are given training around domestic abuse and coercive control to “mitigate” the re-traumatisation of survivors within the court system and minimise the risk posed by offenders.
Reflecting on the report, Domestic Abuse Commissioner, Nicole Jacobs, said: “This report comes at a time when there have been significant falls in prosecutions of domestic abuse in the criminal courts, and serious failings acknowledged by Government around the treatment of survivors and their children in the family courts.
Further to this, she said: “Survivors going through the courts also continue to be impacted by the delays caused by the Covid pandemic and will be for some years to come. In this most difficult of contexts, the changes we are calling for cannot come fast enough”.
A MoJ spokesperson said: “This government is determined to provide all victims of this appalling crime with the support they need. We are investing an extra £27m to recruit more domestic and sexual violence advisors, while spending hundreds of millions to deliver speedier justice”.
They added: “Our landmark Domestic Abuse Act will provide better courtroom protections than ever before – including through special measures such as screens and separate waiting rooms, and by banning cross-examination by perpetrators”.
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, the following resources may be helpful:
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