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Domestic abuse

Foreword from Kate Brown, CPS lead for domestic abuse

As head of our out-of-hours charging service CPS Direct, I frequently encounter society at its most dangerous and desperate - particularly when it comes to domestic abuse.

But what stands out to me among all this anguish is not the abuse and the violence but the resilience and courage of the women and men who speak out to report this crime.

There is no greater job satisfaction for me and my team than knowing we have played our part in protecting victims and their families from harm and helping them move on with their lives.

However, we also recognise the anxieties faced by victims in going through the criminal justice process and the need to improve outcomes for them and their families.

Domestic abuse makes up a large proportion of our workload, with my team receiving up to 70 calls an hour for charging decisions at peak times.

In the first quarter of 2020 - covering the first lockdown - domestic abuse accounted for 52% of our caseload.

This crime occurs amongst people of all backgrounds and ages. Although mostly committed by men against women, victims can also be male and abuse happens within same-sex relationships.

Domestic abuse does not always have to be physical to be prosecuted - sometimes victims may not even be aware it is happening.

It can include any behaviour deployed by an offender to obtain control or power over another, and we recognise that emotional abuse can be just as harmful as physical violence.

But even when a victim has reported abuse to the police, there are complex reasons they may not see through a prosecution - love, shame, guilt, isolation, fear of the process and language barriers to name just a few.

The level of victim attrition is one of the reasons these cases can be difficult to prosecute. That is why we are working so hard at the CPS and across the criminal justice system to improve the experience and provide protection for these victims and their children.

Our Domestic Abuse Best Practice Framework, adopted in 2019, brought together successes and insights from across the criminal justice system.

It emphasised that victims feel more confident with Independent Domestic Violence Advisor support and appropriate use of special measures, such as giving evidence behind screens or via live link, are considered in each case.

There is also common misconception that complainants ‘press charges’ against perpetrators but that is not how the system works in this country.

While victims are rightly at the centre of everything we do, the CPS prosecutes on behalf of the Crown and for the good of the wider public.

That means we can prosecute domestic abusers without the support or direct involvement of victims through ‘evidence-led prosecutions’ - for example relying on witness accounts or CCTV footage.

However, the onset of COVID-19 and concerns about the impact of lockdown on domestic abuse victims have heightened our sense of urgency and purpose in understanding why prosecutions have reduced in recent years.

To address this, we have developed a 12-month programme which aims to:

  • explore the disparity between DA reports and criminal justice outcomes, and;
  • explore and find solutions to issues that have emerged since the onset of Covid-19, to increase victim, stakeholder and wider public confidence.

Strategic partnerships and public confidence will be essential to achieving these goals, so we will be working throughout the coming months to share best practice and achieve justice outcomes for all.


What is Domestic Abuse?

The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 received royal assent in April 2021. It aims to raise awareness about the devastating impact of domestic abuse on victims and their families and to further improve the effectiveness of the justice system in providing protection for victims of domestic abuse and bringing perpetrators to justice. 

The Act introduces a statutory definition to ensure that domestic abuse is properly understood, viewed as unacceptable and is actively challenged across statutory agencies and in public attitudes. It sets out who can be a victim of domestic abuse behaviours and establishes how victims need to be ‘personally connected’ to the perpetrator. It also makes clear that children are deemed to be victims of domestic abuse if they see or hear, or experience the effects of, the abuse. There is also no requirement that they live in the same household as the abuser.

When are people personally connected?

The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 sets out how people can be ‘personally connected’ including if they are or have been in an intimate relationship, married, civil partners, agree or have agreed to marry each other, have had, or have a parental relationship to a child or are relatives.  There is no requirement for the victim and the perpetrator to cohabit although we know many will have. This often then provides perpetrators with personal knowledge about what might most traumatise or impact  victims, making this crime particularly distressing and sometimes leaving victims at risk of future violence and abuse.

Who are counted as family members?

Family members are defined within the legislation as the father, mother, stepfather, stepmother, son, daughter, stepson, stepdaughter, grandmother, grandfather, grandson, or granddaughter, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, niece, nephew or first cousin (whether of full blood or of half blood or by marriage or civil partnership) of that person or of that person’s spouse, former spouse, civil partner, or former civil partner.

What are the types of abuse?

Domestic abuse comprises of broad categories of behaviour including physical or sexual abuse, violent or threatening behaviour, controlling or coercive behaviour, economic abuse and psychological, emotional, or other abuse. It can be prosecuted under a range of offences and it does not matter whether the behaviour consists of a single incident or a course of conduct.

Domestic abuse is rarely a one-off incident and it is the cumulative and interlinked types of abuse that have a particularly damaging effect on the victim. The ‘domestic’ nature of the offending behaviour is an aggravating factor because of the abuse of trust involved. 

Who faces abuse?

Men, women and children can all be victims of domestic abuse. Domestic abuse occurs amongst people of all gender identities, ethnicities, sexualities, ages, disabilities, immigration status, religions or beliefs, and socio-economic backgrounds. The CPS recognises domestic abuse differs in severity between incidents, and more often than not, will increase in frequency and seriousness, having a cumulative impact on the victim which can be particularly damaging. 

Domestic abuse is prosecuted as part of the CPS Violence against Women and Girls Strategy

The CPS Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) Strategy is an overarching framework to address crimes that have been identified as being committed primarily but not exclusively by men against women. 

These crimes include domestic abuse, rape, sexual offences, stalking, harassment, so-called ‘honour-based’ violence including forced marriage, female genital mutilation, child abuse, human trafficking focusing on sexual exploitation, prostitution, pornography and obscenity.

This CPS approach to VAWG crimes follows United Nations conventions which the UK government has ratified, and which inform the cross-government VAWG framework. However, the Annual Violence Against Women and Girls report published by the CPS includes data on all perpetrators and victims, irrespective of gender. The CPS is determined to secure justice for all victims, and recently reaffirmed our commitment to male victims.

    ‘Controlling or Coercive behaviour’ describes behaviour occurring within a current or former intimate or family relationship which causes someone to fear that violence will be used against them on more than one occasion, or causes them serious alarm or distress that substantially affects their day to day activities. It involves a pattern of behaviour or incidents that enable a person to exert power or control over another, such as isolating a partner from their friends and family, taking control of their finances, everyday activities like what they wear or who they see, or tracking their movements through the internet or mobile phone use.

    The domestic abuse definition specifically states:

    Controlling behaviour is: a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependant by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour. 

    Coercive behaviour is: an act or a pattern of acts of assaults, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.

    So-called ‘honour- based’ violence is a crime or incident committed to protect or defend the so-called honour of the family or community. The term can cover a collection of practices used to control behaviour within families or other social groups, in order to protect perceived cultural and religious beliefs or honour.  These crimes are included within the domestic abuse definition, but may also be carried out by people who are not partners or family members.

    A number of offences can be committed in the context of honour-based violence and forced marriage, including common assault, GBH, harassment, kidnap, rape, threats to kill and murder. Examples of instances that might trigger a so-called ‘honour’ crime include someone becoming involved with a boyfriend or girlfriend from a different culture or religion, wearing clothes or taking part in activities that might not be considered traditional within a particular culture, or seeking a divorce.

    Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a collective term for a range of procedures which involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. It is sometimes referred to as female circumcision, or female genital cutting. The practice is medically unnecessary, is extremely painful and has serious health consequences, both at the time when the mutilation is carried out, and in later life.

    FGM has been classified by the World Health Organization (WHO) into four major types, all of which may be relevant to the offences arising under the FGM Act 2003:

    • Type I: Clitoridectomy: partial or total removal of the clitoris; 
    • Type II: Excision: partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora; 
    • Type III: Infibulation: narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal: 
    • Type IV: Other: all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area. 

    Stalking and harassment occurs not only in a domestic abuse setting – people can be stalked by strangers or acquaintances too.

    Stalking is a specific type of harassment, often described as a pattern of unwanted, fixated or obsessive behaviour which is intrusive, and causes fear of violence or serious alarm and distress. For example, a person following, watching or spying on someone else, or forcing contact with them through social media, might be considered as stalking. 

    Harassment offences involve a ‘course of conduct,’ or repeated actions, which could be expected to cause distress or fear in any reasonable person. This will often include repeated attempts to impose unwanted contact or communication on someone. 

    What is the CPS doing?

    The CPS domestic abuse policy and prosecution guidance sets out how the CPS tackles domestic abuse. We want, as the principal prosecution service for England and Wales, to make sure victims, irrespective of background or circumstance, see justice done. Our overarching aim is to secure justice in every possible domestic abuse case.

    We have developed a proactive prosecution approach, which looks at how strong cases can be presented at court without the need for the victim to attend. This includes the use of technology such as police body worn video footage and 999 calls where appropriate.

    We also work closely with Independent Domestic Violence Advisors (IDVAs) and other specialist domestic abuse advocates who support victims of abuse through the CJS. 

    We want to help victims to understand what constitutes domestic abuse or coercive and controlling behaviour – and warn perpetrators such behaviour may be a crime that will not be tolerated.

    How to report domestic abuse

    If you are in immediate danger, call 999.

    Call 101 for non-emergency enquiries

    Domestic abuse is a crime and should be reported to the police – there are also other partner agencies who can offer you help and support.

    Support for victims and witnesses

    The CPS is committed to taking all practicable steps to help victims through the sometimes difficult experience of becoming involved in the criminal justice system. There are multi-agency Witness Care Units staffed by police and CPS Witness Care Officers across the UK.

    'Special measures’ can also be applied for and put in place during court proceedings to make the experience less traumatic for victims and witnesses. Where they are available, measures include:

    • Screens to shield the witness from the defendant
    • A live video link to enable the witness to give evidence from a separate room
    • Evidence in private, with the court cleared of the public and most journalists
    • Giving evidence by a video-recorded interview

    Read further information on ‘special measures’ in court.

    The Code of Practice for Victims of Crime (Victims' Code) was introduced in 2006 and was last updated in April 2021. It sets out the minimum levels of service which victims can expect from agencies that are signatories to it.

    female eye

    Support for victims & witnesses

    The CPS is committed to taking all practicable steps to help victims through the often difficult experience of becoming involved in the criminal justice system. There are multi-agency Witness Care Units staffed by police and CPS Witness Care Officers across the UK.

    'Special measures’ can also be applied for and put in place during court proceedings to make the experience less traumatic for victims and witnesses. Where they are available, measures include:  

    • Screens to shield the witness from the defendant
    • A live video link to enable the witness to give evidence from a separate room
    • Evidence in private, with the court cleared of the public and most journalists
    • Giving evidence by a video-recorded interview 

    Read further information on ‘special measures’ in court.

    The Code of Practice for Victims of Crime (Victims' Code) was introduced in 2006 and sets out the minimum levels of service which victims can expect from agencies that are signatories to it.

    Further reading

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