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Domestic Violence: the facts, the issues, the future - Speech by the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC


Domestic violence is serious and pernicious. It ruins lives, breaks up families and has a lasting impact. It is criminal. And it has been with us for a very long time. Yet it is only in the last ten years that it has been taken seriously as a criminal justice issue. Before that the vast majority of cases were brushed under the carpet with the refrain "it's just a domestic".

Some good progress has now undoubtedly been made since those administering criminal justice woke up to domestic violence and I will touch on some aspects of that progress later. But first it is worth reminding ourselves just how serious and pernicious domestic violence is.

These statistics are shocking and demonstrate that women are still more at risk of violent crime at home than anywhere else.

What then have we done? How far have we got? And what else is needed?

What have we done? 

First and foremost we now prosecute far more cases than before. Back in 2001, the CPS did not even monitor domestic violence cases. That only started in 2004. But the figures since then indicate progress. In 2004/05, we prosecuted 35,000 defendants for domestic violence. That figure has been steadily rising. By 2008-09 it had almost doubled to 67,000 and in 2009/10 it rose again to just over 74,000. Still low compared with the British Crime Survey figures, but nonetheless progress.

The conviction rate has also risen dramatically. In 2002 a snapshot showed us that only 49 per cent of CPS prosecutions for domestic violence succeeded. That rose to about 65 per cent in 2006/07 and the conviction rate for domestic violence in 2009/10 now stands at 72 per cent. That again, is progress.

There is also some emerging evidence of progress at a much deeper level. The CPS recently commissioned CAADA (Coordinated Action Against Domestic Abuse) to carry out further analysis of their recent survey of 1,247 victims. CAADA has trained over 1000 Independent Domestic Violence Advisers (IDVAs) and their findings are of significant interest. Not only was there a successful outcome in 73 per cent of the domestic violence cases where an IDVA supported the victim but also 66 per cent of all victims supported, regardless of the outcome of the case, reported a cessation or reduction of domestic violence as a result. Further analysis will no doubt be needed, but this is encouraging.

If we are to improve on these figures, it is worth pausing to consider how this progress was achieved. Cause and effect are not always easy to prove in criminal justice, but, to my mind, the following factors undoubtedly contributed to our progress:

  • since 2001 the CPS has issued clear guidance to prosecutors on bringing domestic violence cases; this guidance makes it clear that whatever form it takes, domestic violence is rarely a one-off incident. It is often a series of incidents, often increasing in frequency and seriousness, capable of a cumulative effect on the victim; the guidance also makes clear that, as prosecutors, It is important that we work closely with the police and other agencies to ensure that the best evidence is gathered and presented to the court. A strong, coordinated prosecution team is required to build and manage a case proactively; the guidance instructs prosecutors to liaise with IDVAs, Witness Care Units and voluntary sector support organisations, to ensure that the victim's needs particularly relating to safety are addressed throughout the life of a case;
  • between 2005-2008, the CPS engaged in a huge training exercise; training all of our prosecutors on domestic violence; that training emphasised to prosecutors that they must consider special measures requirements in domestic violence cases at an early stage and should where appropriate, work with the relevant agencies to refer victims to specialist domestic violence support services early in the process;
  • the CPS took over responsibility for charging in domestic violence cases in 2005;
  • we have put in place Violence Against Women co-ordinators who provide guidance and support to other staff when dealing with rape, domestic violence, child abuse, forced marriage and honour-based crime;
  • we have set up special panels to scrutinise our cases and invited those outside our organisation who have expert knowledge about violence against women to become panel members and to hold us to account:
  • and in September last year we issued guidance on stalking and harassment. 

Alongside these developments, the police have also worked hard to improve their performance in domestic violence cases. And, of course, specialist domestic violence courts have been set up. These courts were first established in 2005 and represent a partnership approach to domestic violence by the police, prosecutors, court staff, the probation service and specialist support services for victims. Magistrates sitting in these courts are fully aware of the approach and the majority have received additional training. These courts provide a specialist approach to dealing with domestic violence cases in magistrates' courts. Agencies work together to identify, track and risk assess domestic violence cases, support victims of domestic violence and share information better so that more perpetrators are brought to justice. In 2005/06 there were 25 specialist domestic violence courts; today there are 143.

How far have we got? 

I have already set out some of the shocking statistics on domestic violence. The position is improving domestic violence now accounts for 14 per cent of violent crime whereas in 1997 it accounted for 23 per cent. But that figure is still far too high and the level of violence is disturbing. A recent study showed that 76 per cent of domestic violence victims supported by IDVAs had experienced severe abuse, by which I mean violence causing injuries, strangulation, rape and other sexual abuse, stalking, extremely controlling behaviour, and threats of harm to children. 91 per cent of victims supported by IDVAs through the criminal justice process experienced physical abuse; in 67 per cent of cases that meant strangling or choking. Half of the victims who went to court feared for their lives and a quarter that their children were going to be harmed.

So, clearly, we have made some progress, but, equally clearly, there is more work to do. Attitudes need to change. A poll as recently as 2009 revealed that around 1 in 5 of those polled thought it would be acceptable in certain circumstances for a man to hit or slap his wife or girlfriend if she dressed in sexy or revealing clothing in public.

Young people and domestic violence 

The issues I have already touched on are complicated by the increase in domestic violence among young people.

Research shows that women aged between 16 and 19 are at the highest risk of sexual assault (7.9 per cent), stalking (8.5 per cent) and domestic abuse (12.7 per cent). And women aged between 20 and 24 are only slightly less at risk, stalking (7.5 per cent) and domestic abuse (11.1 per cent).

Recent research from NSPCC in 2009 has shown that exploitation and violence in teenage relationships are more common than previously thought. So, for example:

  • 13 to 15-year-olds are as likely to experience violence as the over-16s
  • 25 per cent of girls and 18 per cent of boys surveyed reported that they had experienced some form of physical violence
  • Nearly 75 per cent of girls reported that they had experienced some sort of emotional violence from partners
  • Over 75 per cent of girls with an older partner (in particular a "much older" one) reported that they had experienced physical violence. 

We are clearly at risk of a whole new generation of domestic violence.

Gritty problems 

Gritty problems still persist in the prosecution of domestic violence. Over 6,500 domestic violence cases failed in 2009/10 because the victim either failed to attend court or retracted her evidence; that's 1 in 3 of all failed cases. That compares with a general figure of about 9 per cent for all prosecutions.

Recent analysis of failed domestic violence cases in Essex shows a very clear picture. Where the CPS can get a case to court, the overwhelming majority of defendants plead guilty, with only a small proportion electing for a trial. Where there are trials, most prosecutions succeed. But the critical problem is persuading victims not to withdraw from the process along the way either by retracting, refusing to give evidence or withdrawing support for the case.

We have tried to mitigate this problem by instructing our prosecutors to prepare their cases on the assumption that the victim may in the end not support the prosecution. We have also issued witness summons' to bring reluctant witnesses to court. Used appropriately, these can be very effective, not least because they remove from the victim the choice of whether to go to court (and with it a pressure point often exploited by perpetrators) and instead impose on them a duty to attend.

Our guidance here is clear. Before a decision to issue a summons is taken, we must make enquiries to satisfy ourselves, as far as possible, that the safety of the victim and any children will not be endangered by our decision. Through the police, we should check that the victim has been made aware of available specialist support and seek the views of that specialist support. And a summons should only be considered once it has been determined that the victim will not give evidence, even with the help of special measures and other support; the case cannot proceed without the participation of the victim; and the safety of the victim and any children will not be jeopardised by the case continuing.

But summonsing victims to court should be the last resort. Far better to be able to proceed on the basis of other evidence. And that drives us back to the importance of evidence gathering at an early stage. The first hour after the police arrive on the scene is critical. How did the victim look? What was her demeanour? Was she injured? Was she dishevelled? Was furniture overturned or broken? Did the neighbours hear anything? Videos and photos of the scene can be invaluable; as can the tape of the '999' call (very often the single most critical piece of contemporary evidence).

When I visited Norfolk and Suffolk recently, as part of my frequent visits to CPS staff on the ground, I was pleased to find some really good examples of best practice in evidence gathering and the use of 999 tapes in particular. For example, in the Suffolk case of Doyle, the victim was giving the defendant, who was her ex-boyfriend, a lift in her car when, during the course of the journey, he became angry and punched the windscreen causing it to crack. The victim telephoned the police when she arrived home. The officer who attended her home saw the damage to the windscreen. He noted the victim was visibly upset and arrested the defendant. The defendant denied the offence claiming that the windscreen had been damaged by a pigeon. The defendant's knuckles were seen to be injured.

At the first hearing some two weeks later, the defendant pleaded not guilty and suggested that a withdrawal statement had been made by the victim. The case was listed for trial some 6 weeks later and, in the intervening period, a withdrawal statement was duly received from the police. However, the police had a copy of the 999 tape, which included in the background an admission to the offence by the defendant. When that was served on the defendant, he promptly changed his plea to guilty.

Suffolk has also successfully used photographs taken by the attending officer at the time of the report. In one case they were used to prove the presence of reddening to a complainant's neck, providing corroboration to the claim of her being choked. In the end this was critical because by the time the scene of crime photographs were taken, the reddening had faded.

In Norfolk, 999 tapes are a routine part of the evidence used in domestic violence cases. All 999 calls are recorded by the police on to a digital hard drive, called a red box recorder. The police send the CPS charging lawyer the 999 call attached to an email, together with a CD on which it is recorded. The process of locating the 999 recording and downloading it takes about 10 minutes. The success of this approach is demonstrated by the recent Norfolk case of Larkin, where he defendant was convicted when the 999 tape was played at court and the victim could clearly be heard in a distressed state in the background.

Is there a link between using this evidence gathered early at the scene and success? I think so. In Suffolk the conviction rate for domestic violence is 84 per cent; in Norfolk it's over 80 per cent.

What else is needed? 

We have worked hard to improve our prosecutions in domestic violence cases. Numbers are up; success rates are up. And we have begun to work out how to overcome the difficulties posed by a reluctant, withdrawing or retracting victim. But we should not be complacent. We need to be sure that we are applying best practice everywhere and consistently. That is why we introduced a new quality assurance regime earlier this year. As well as monitoring the numbers of cases we bring and our success rate, we need to monitor the quality of our decisions. The new assurance regime allows us to do that by encouraging coordinators to review files, at a minimum 25 per cent of all rape files, on a six monthly basis. This is an intense exercise and the role of our Violence Against Women Co-ordinators across the country will be pivotal. But I am sure it will pay dividends.

We are also working closely with ACPO to improve domestic violence investigations and prosecutions. ACPO is in the process of reviewing the use of the risk assessment tool (DASH) and the information that is used by officers to gather evidence. At the same time, the ACPO domestic violence lead is engaged in joint work with the CPS to identify best practice in evidence gathering and how best to make use of technology in domestic violence cases.

Meanwhile, at a national level CPS and ACPO plan to develop a joint quick checklist for use by both police and prosecutors on the key issues for enhanced evidence gathering and charging.

In February this year we issued interim guidance to prosecutors about the factors that should be considered before charging a person involved in rape or domestic violence allegations with an offence of perverting the course of justice. We are consulting on this guidance (which is available on the CPS website at and I invite the views of all interested parties, especially those with experience of this complex and sensitive area.

One of the key reasons for issuing this interim guidance was to ensure that victims of rape and domestic violence have the confidence to come forward and report abuse, safe in the knowledge that they will only be prosecuted for perverting the course of justice if their original allegation is false and not where they later feel unable to support a prosecution and withdraw.

These are all important initiatives. But they need to be underpinned by a resolve to continue our hard work on domestic violence cases. The Spending Review in 2010 was the most challenging in the 25 year history of the CPS. We must find savings of 24 per cent to our budget in four years. Clear decisive action is needed. That is why we have already restructured the organisation from 42 CPS Areas to 13, committed ourselves to a significant reduction in our staff and redoubled our efforts to increase efficiency in criminal justice, not least by pioneering the digital file. But we must also get our priorities right. As I said when I started, domestic violence is serious and pernicious. It ruins lives, breaks up families and has a lasting impact. It is criminal. It must remain a priority for the CPS.

But even if domestic violence remains a priority for the CPS, there remains the wider issue of complacency. Most people are still unaware of the extent of domestic violence and its impact. And, although greatly reduced, the refrain "It's just a domestic" is still heard far too frequently. The steps that we and our criminal justice partners are taking to tackle domestic violence risk limited success unless this complacency is tackled head on. A change in attitude is clearly needed.

Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC