Three-quarters of domestic abuse-related crimes reported to the police are being dropped, according to a watchdog report into forces’ response to the coronavirus pandemic. It revealed that in the year to March 2020, 55% of cases were discontinued because the victim felt ‘unable to support the prosecution’; and a further 20% were stopped because the police found ‘evidential difficulties’. The report addresses how the police attempted to change practices in light of last March’s lockdown when ‘many victims of domestic abuse couldn’t distance themselves from their abuser, safely contact the police for help or get support from family and friends’.
The HM Inspectorate of Constabulary recorded ‘a huge variation’ between forces recording the discontinuance of cases because victims felt that they could not support the prosecution. This decision is identified in the report as ‘outcome 16’ with some forces forces recording close to one third of cases being discontinued for that reason (36%) and others higher than seven out of 10 (71%). There are different reasons why cases fail, the inspectorate said. ‘For example, a victim may be reluctant to give evidence, due to fear of having to relive their experiences or of reprisals from the perpetrator and/or their family. They may simply not have faith that a positive outcome will occur. In these instances, there may be sufficient other evidence to enable police to proceed on an evidence-led basis. However, this will not always be the case.’
‘While we acknowledge that there will be crimes whereby there is no possible means by which to take a case forward to charge, we remain concerned at forces’ unacceptably high use of outcome 16,’ the report said. ‘It is even more disturbing that… on average 75 percent of cases are discontinued by police, leaving victims at potential risk of further harm.’
Inspector Zoë Billingham said the rate at which investigations are closed early had ‘worsened considerably over the past five years’. ‘It’s a huge concern that on average, three in every four domestic abuse related crimes are closed by the police without the perpetrator being charged,’ she said. Despite these concerns, she insisted there had been ‘a positive shift’ over the last few years with the police ‘prioritising domestic abuse, and victims should not be discouraged from reporting’. ‘The police improved their understanding, identification and recording of domestic abuse, while continuing to find new and innovative ways to support victims,’ she added.
The inspectorate also flagged delays and backlogs in the criminal justice system as ‘a significant concern’. ‘Forces adapted rapidly to a changing pattern of criminal behaviour,’ the report said. ‘… However, this was not without difficulties, such as financial constraints, resourcing issues, the lack of an efficient court scheduling tool, and detainees being held in police cells for an extra 16–24 hours rather than being transferred to court cells.’
Additional reporting by Jon Robins