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Commissioner’s response to the CPS Consultation – Guidance for the Prosecution of Domestic Violence Cases

20th July 2014

Vera Baird QC response to the Crown Prosecution Service Consultation – Guidance for the Prosecution of Domestic Violence Cases

Thank you for providing the opportunity to shape your future guidance around prosecution of domestic violence cases. As Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria I take an active personal lead on the issue and alongside other Police and Crime Commissioners in the region we have developed and are delivering a Violence against Women and Girls (VAWG) Strategy. We are co-ordinating efforts with key stakeholders including the police, Crown Prosecution Service, voluntary groups and victims to bring an end to this crime.

I will continue to support the development of any work or guidance that seeks to strengthen and improve the handling and prosecution of domestic violence cases, not only to seek a positive criminal justice outcome but to ensure the victim can rebuild a life that is free from fear.

Question 1: Do you agree that the CPS approach to understanding the context of domestic violence is right and well informed?

I believe the CPS approach to understanding the context of domestic violence is right and is fairly well informed. The draft guidance is comprehensive and recognises the dynamics and impact of domestic abuse and more importantly it prioritises the safety of victims and children.

I am pleased to see that the guidance highlights the challenges presented to both CPS and the Police in relation to the investigation process and understands the feelings and restrictions placed on victims to pursue the criminal justice process against partners. Understanding and taking into account the challenges that victims face is key to pursuing a successful prosecution in court.

The guidance clearly recognises the need to make dynamic risk assessments throughout the process not only for victims but for the children involved. The guidance makes clear the desire to remove the burden from victims to prosecute by understanding the complex needs of the relationship and the hurdles victims’ face, not only to come forward, but to remain committed to the investigation.

The document provides comprehensive direction but consideration must be given as to how to bring the guidance to life. This could be done through the involvement of victims in training prosecutors to fully understand the issues and barriers to the prosecution of domestic violence cases. Involving victims in the development and delivery of this work is the approach we have taken in Northumbria to help shape and strengthen our police response to cases of domestic violence and other crimes such as hate crime. Involving

victims in professional training has two clear benefits – firstly it provides the organisation with the much need insight into the victim’s perspective to help provide the best possible response ad secondly and most importantly it can provide an opportunity for the victim to see themselves as a survivor who is helping to improve the system for all other victims.

Question 2: Have we identified the right potential lines of enquiry for evidence gathering and the right public interest factors to be considered when the CPS makes a charging decision? If not, how can we address this?

It is accepted that there needs to be some kind of criteria when considering public interest; however domestic abuse cases are wide and varied and although the public interest factors err towards the more serious or repetitive patterns of behaviour it is well known that victims of homicide can equally be those at standard and medium risk. Should the guidance therefore not say that public interest is met in every case of domestic abuse and that early intervention is better served, to prevent an escalation of violence?

Determining the right potential lines of enquiry for evidence gathering is crucial to securing a successful prosecution. I welcome the approach to evidence gathering you outline in the guidance as this shifts the prosecution case away from relying solely on evidence of the victim.

In Northumbria this is an approach we have proactively introduced. A regional protocol has been developed around evidence led prosecutions between the three Chief Constables, Police and Crime Commissioners and the Crown Prosecution Service. The protocol defines the preferred standard for corroborative evidence in all domestic and sexual violence and abuse cases and is intended to support the joint CPS and police strategy for improving investigation and prosecution. We are also piloting the use of bodyworn cameras to support this protocol and officers equipped with the cameras will be first to be deployed.

Under the Code of Practice for Victims of Crime, victims are entitled to take part in restorative justice techniques. The CPS guidance clearly talks about domestic violence and pursuing out of court disposals. It is worth noting that Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary is quite clear that there is no place for restorative justice in domestic violence cases. It is prudent to include the police’s position that they do not support the use of restorative justice techniques where intimate partner violence has taken place. I agree that restorative justice should only be considered in domestic violence cases where intimate partner violence is not present and only when specific ACPO guidance is followed and guidance is provided by supervisors and experts.

In Northumbria we have introduced an Out of Court Disposal Scrutiny Panel which looks to review the decisions in cases of out of court disposals to highlight any negative trends or lessons to be learned for future practice. The key lessons are recorded and will form part of future training for police officers to help drive forward improvements in police responses to out of court disposals.

Question 3: Do you think the guidance clearly sets out the basis for how we handle cases where complaints are not willing to support a prosecution? If not, please suggest how we could approach ‘evidence-led’ prosecutions (prosecutions continued without the victim).

This section very clearly states that a prosecutor’s primary concern should be the safety of the victim and any children – this is essential, victims should come first.

The guidance clearly outlines the process for taking withdrawal statements and has a good understanding of the feelings victims encounter and the pressures they feel to withdraw their allegation; however it is felt the guidance could be more robust in relation to the issue of witness summons for domestic abuse victims. The checklist outlining the desirability of summons seems to favour the most serious of cases. It is apparent from Domestic Homicide Reviews that victims having been identified as standard and medium risk are equally likely to be killed by their partner therefore a robust approach to summons procedure should be considered in all cases. Evidence suggests offenders are more likely to try and prolong court process knowing victims support falters, experience has shown that if a victim simply arrives at court, the defendant knowing that a victim is present, will often plead guilty. With this in mind and knowing the cycle victims will go through of retraction/ withdrawal a robust approach to all non-attendance is preferable rather than only those cases that meet the highest requirement.

The guidance makes very succinct reference to ‘Delays to Court Proceeding’; a recurring theme of domestic abuse cases is the withdrawal of victims from the Criminal Justice System. More needs to be done to ensure faster rate of outcomes for domestic abuse cases. The guidance needs to be developed to show what the CPS outcomes are in relation to delay of court proceedings and how the guidance aims to address this. Reference is made to the use of Specialist Domestic Abuse Courts, again this is only briefly mentioned in the guidance and something that could be expanded upon, how can the CPS use these more effectively to ensure appropriate cases are held and issues as above addressed?

Question 4: Do you agree we have properly outlined the safety and support issues affecting victims and how these issues can be managed by the CPS?

The safety and support issues you outline in the guidance puts a very real focus on providing support and protection for victims, witnesses and their children. The recent introduction of the Code of Practice for Victims of Crime is pertinent here as is the understanding and application of this for prosecutors when responding to cases of domestic violence.

I am very encouraged to see that the guidance suggests that prosecutors will need to understand the vulnerability of domestic violence victims and some of the stereotypes that have previously worked against some victims such as not reporting immediately, victim voluntarily returning to their abuser and the victim’s reliance on alcohol or other substances. From our experience in Northumbria through working with victims of crime we understand that these factors should not be seen to undermine the credibility of the victim but in fact they support the behaviours of victims who have been abused and continue to be abused.

The guidance describes how Independent Domestic Violence Advocate’s manage high and very high risk victims. It should be recognised that although IDVAs play an integral and important part of supporting victims through the criminal justice process their future existence is not guaranteed in all parts of the country. As austerity bites even further some areas who do not currently mainstream the IDVA service and therefore rely on grants from

other parties, may find it difficult to sustain these vitally important posts. Everything that can, should be done to promote the good work that the IDVA service do in securing positive criminal justice outcomes and further effort is needed to allow IDVAs to give support in court.

Attrition rates in cases of domestic violence are not as low as we would all hope. In Northumbria we have recognised this issue in particular with regard to cases of rape and sexual abuse therefore we have introduced a Court Observers Panel to watch, listen and promote learning from rape trials that are carried out in the Crown Court. Findings from the panel will potentially help to improve all agencies response to the way that rape cases are handled within the criminal justice system from start to finish. If this model proves to be useful in strengthening approaches to rape cases it could be something that could be further developed and introduced to strengthen the handling of domestic violence cases to the benefit of all those involved.

Question 5: Have we demonstrated sensitivity and understanding to the issues which may be experienced victims from different groups? If not, please suggest how this could be achieved?

Whilst preparing the VAWG Strategy in Northumbria we talked to many different people and overwhelmingly understanding and meeting victim’s needs in relation to the criminal justice system is paramount to securing a successful prosecution. Victims must feel protected and believed to build trust and confidence in a system that quite often can be seen as negative and hard to engage with. At a very early stage it is imperative to meet the victim and tell them what is to follow.

This section of the guidance is comprehensive and shows empathy, a good understanding of the different groups and effects abuse can have for varying reasons. The issues involved can be wide and varied but the guidance shows an understanding of how certain factors can actually accentuate the abuse due to the vulnerability of the victims and whether those factors actually inhibit the victim seeking help.

The use of intermediaries is not mentioned within the document. They can be a good source of support and assistance through the prosecution process for those victims that are particularly vulnerable and for those with mental health issues – this could perhaps be drawn out in the ‘disability’ section.

Question 6: Please let us know if you have any other comments

The guidance is well-balanced and incorporates a sound understanding of the issues faced by victims and has carefully considered the needs of those from different groups. It recognises the need to take an innovative approach to evidence gathering to secure and preserve evidence and support victims and children at risk. I welcome the need for early intervention by CPS / Police to ensure effective prosecutions and a robust but sensitive approach to supporting victims.

From experience Northumbria Police believe there are disparities between different lawyers when prosecuting cases of domestic violence and they suggest that further good practice may be to introduce local Specialist Domestic Violence Lawyers, similar to the process for Rape prosecution. This would provide a consistent approach to case building and develop a core group of experts within the domestic abuse field.

I think it is vitally important to ensure effective communications between criminal justice agencies when prosecuting cases of domestic violence. I am pleased to see that the policy recognises the importance of Domestic Violence Protection Notices and Orders and highlights the need for prosecutors to be aware of them when civil and criminal proceedings are taking place at the same time, and should ensure that the courts have the appropriate information to enable them to make orders that prioritise the safety of victims, children and young people. It is vitally important to get this process right so that communication is timely and effective. Further thought and detail about how to ensure effective communications between criminal justice agencies is needed.

Ending all forms of violence against women and girls is a major priority in Northumbria and we have worked closely with key stakeholders and victims to develop an approach that will help to protect and provide victims with the right level of support. We have shared our learning and ways of working with many other police force areas across the country and are always willing to help drive forward improvements in this area of work and strengthen police responses to the prosecution of domestic