The ‘i’ paper today has a dramatic and troubling front page. “Police letting off domestic abusers with a slap on the wrist” it proclaims.
Glossing quickly over the unfortunate irony to the metaphor, the full story is carried in the commuter tabloid’s grown up sibling, the Independent, with a rather more honest title. “Violent partners let off with ‘slap on the wrist’ orders, says Labour.”
The story heralds a speech today by Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary, which will flesh out more details on Labour’s proposed new legislation that will, among other changes, ban the use of Community Resolution Orders (CROs) in cases of domestic violence. The story is fleshed out with statistics and quotes from Women’s Aid to illustrate and explain that domestic violence is not a trivial crime, it rarely occurs as a one-off, and should therefore be inappropriate for these community settlements. CROs are primarily designed to deal with very minor offences and anti-social behaviour offences by minors.
What is the scale of use of these orders? Well we are told that their use has more than doubled in the past five years
Figures from Labour’s data from 15 police forces show the frequency with which Community Resolution has been used to deal with domestic violence more than doubled in four years. There were 6,861 cases in 2012 and 2013, an average of more than nine a day, compared with 1,337, fewer than four a day, in 2009.
There are 42 territorial police forces in England and Wales, and I presume the figures above come from the 15 forces providing data. For sake of ball park estimates lets assume they represent about a third of the total, which means erring on the side of generosity, perhaps there are around 10,000 CROs issued for domestic violence each year.
This does sound like quite a large number.
On the other hand, in 2011/12 there were 796,000 domestic violence incidents dealt with by police in 2011/12 and around 90,000 prosecutions. There are real and pressing concerns that the number of cases police are prosecuting seems to be declining sharply (this is also the case with sexual violence) and a strong suspicion that this may be due to heavy cuts to police staffing levels and resources.
But the key point is that we have no idea whether the 10,000 CROs that have been issued with regard to domestic violence offences arise from more serious incidents which 5+ years ago would have led to criminal charges and have been effectively demoted, or less serious offences which five years ago would have resulted in a caution or no further action. Considering that we are only talking one CRO for every 80 reported incidents, and nearly 90% of domestic violence call-outs do not result in prosecution, I should think it is highly likely that at least a large proportion of these CROs are not being offered as alternatives to prosecution, but as alternatives to no action at all.
What other factors could be contributing to up to 10,000 CROs a year?
At the risk of bringing down the wrath of the feminist movement on my head, let me utter a heresy: Not all incidents of DV/DA constitute serious violent crime. A couple argue in the street, one party pushes the other and a passing police patrol car intervenes. Bingo, you have a domestic violence statistic.
One of the most common reasons why police fail to prosecute DV/DA cases is that the victim refuses to co-operate. She or he (or perhaps a neighbour or passer-by) calls the police while an incident is frightening, but the moment the immediate danger has passed, there is no wish to involve the authorities any further. This, of course, is an immensely difficult and complex scenario to navigate as it is almost impossible to separate motivations – love, loyalty, fear, intimidation, distrust of the police and courts and many other emotions may be interacting and influencing the decision. Under these circumstances I can imagine some victims agreeing to be part of a CRO settlement when s/he would not agree to provide evidence as a witness for the prosecution.
We should also bear in mind that the group responsible for the most partner violence is young people. As a wee anecdote, I remember when I was about 15 one of my mates had an argument with his girlfriend and she slapped him hard enough to leave a mark. His parents saw it and interrogated him, then they hit the roof when he told them, and they reported the girl to the police. She was given a stiff talking to, my mate was mortified, and (sorry to say) the rest of us thought it was hilarious. Had there been CROs available, that might well have been the route the police would have gone down. Would that be so wrong? I don’t see it.
I realise that I am now starting to sound like an advocate for CROs as a response to domestic violence. I’m not. In most cases I can easily agree that it would be an inappropriate response.
If there is evidence that CROs are being used inappropriately, in such a way as to put a victim in greater danger, then that should be identified, highlighted and stopped. What I am saying, however, is that I do not accept that CROs can never be an appropriate response.
The truth about partner abuse is that it is a wildly diverse, complex phenomenon. A one-size fits all response from police and prosecutors is a retrograde step. I want victims to be given the most protection they can get. I want offenders to be deterred, dissuaded and prevented from hurting others and punished where they do. My concern over Cooper’s proposals are less about preserving CROs and more about preserving the principle that to provide the best possible protection for victims, we need flexibility, imagination and courage.