Domestic abuse cases abandoned too quickly when victims retreat – study

Lack of police resources cited as reason for not gathering other evidence, say inspectorates

Police and prosecutors are dropping domestic abuse cases far too readily when victims become reluctant to pursue complaints against often violent partners, an official inspectorate report has warned.

Lack of police resources is the excuse commonly given for discontinuing investigations, even where there may be sufficient alternative evidence from cameras, witnesses or other sources, the review found.

The study, Evidence-led Domestic Abuse Prosecutions, highlights use of what is known as “outcome 16” in police inquiries – an administrative dead end where no further action is taken because of “evidential difficulties” when the suspect is identified but the “victim does not support further action”.

In rape cases there has been a sudden ballooning of this category, so that the proportion of rape cases abandoned due to outcome 16 rose from 33% to 48% from 2015 to 2018.

A similar pattern may be present in domestic abuse cases. In nearly 20% of a sample of 78 cases examined “reasonable lines of inquiry had been missed”, according to the joint report by HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate and HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services.

In many of those cases, the report noted, “there were undue delays in gathering evidence … [and] police supervisors attributed the delay to a lack of police resource available to follow up reports of incidents”.

In one case study highlighted by the report, there was evidence from a taped 999 call and a police body camera, but it was was not sent to the CPS until the day before the trial. “By that time,” the report says, “the victim had retracted and the opportunity to pursue an evidence-led prosecution had been lost.”

The inspectorate acknowledges the scale of the challenge. “The domestic abuse caseload for both the CPS and the police has increased by 88% against the backdrop of a 25% reduction in police and CPS funding,” it says. “This means both investigators and prosecutors are stretched, which results in difficult decisions about priorities.”

It adds: “The fact that there are no effective systems to identify evidence-led [as opposed to victim-led] prosecutions results in a missed opportunity for both the police and CPS to learn lessons and drive improvement in evidence-led cases.”

The CPS, which has been given more cash, is in the process of hiring 390 new prosecutors by the end of June. It currently employs 2,200 prosecutors.

In a joint statement, HM Inspector Wendy Williams and HMCPSI Chief Inspector Kevin McGinty said: “Domestic abuse can have a devastating impact on victims’ lives and it is important that the police and CPS are proactive in their approach to dealing with this type of offending.

“Both the police service and CPS are moving in the right direction, but much more can be done to ensure an evidence-led approach is considered a focus and priority, and it should be considered for all cases at an early stage. Officers should prioritise effective evidence gathering, and prosecutors should highlight it, by working on the assumption that the victim may withdraw support, in order for the prospects of success to improve.”

The inspection found that in 42.1% of CPS casework files authorising charges read by inspectors, there was no consideration of how to progress the case without victim participation.

HMCPSI inspectors also examined 40 domestic abuse cases where prosecutors decided to take no further action. In three cases, inspectors decided there was sufficient evidence to charge an offence and it was in the public interest to do so. In one of them, although the victim did not make a complaint, there was evidence from three police officers which supported laying charges.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for domestic abuse, deputy chief constable Louisa Rolfe, said: “Despite reports rising considerably at a time when police resources have reduced, we have seen a ‘substantial improvement’ in our response, as recognised previously by HMICFRS.

“When a victim does not support a prosecution we will always consider their vulnerability, ensure their safety and seek evidence to pursue the case, but this can be challenging when other evidence is limited.

“We will consider the recommendations of this review with our criminal justice partners as we continue to improve our response. However, prosecution is only part of the answer and long-term solutions are found in better multi agency support for victims and their families, as well as effective perpetrator programmes.”

A CPS spokesperson said: “We want to see perpetrators of domestic abuse brought to justice whenever possible, but recognise there are complex reasons why victims may withdraw their support for the prosecution.

“Working with police colleagues, we are committed to improving our approach to and handling of these cases to help make sure they are robust and can continue if that occurs.”

Contributor

Owen Bowcott Legal affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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