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Domestic violence: the need to pull together for criminal justice

Sussex and Hampshire Area Criminal Justice Conference
“Improving the response to domestic violence”
26 March 2003

Domestic violence is such a crucial issue for the criminal justice system because it is the most common form of violence, leading to the most common form of murder.

Domestic violence is a particular problem for the South East. Although historically the North has had higher levels of recorded domestic violence than the South, the British Crime Survey this year gave us a shock.

The British Crime Survey is a survey of households.  It does not depend upon whether an incident has been reported to the police.  It shows that domestic violence in the South East is nearly double that of London and three times that of the North. The South East is the most privileged part of England, but it is here that women are most likely to be abused.

The criminal justice system has been through years of cynicism and lack of confidence in our own effectiveness. People like me have lived through an era when we were told that nothing works. But, as Ministers have pointed out, at the moment, we have record numbers of offenders being apprehended, the prisons are full and crime is falling. It is possible, isn’t it, that we are getting some things right?

And, if I can hold the optimism for a minute, there is a common-sense explanation as to why, in the North, recorded domestic violence is high, but British Crime Survey domestic violence is low. It might not be a quirk of statistics, to be explained away. It might equally well be simply that reporting domestic violence and doing something about it actually reduces how much there is.

That is why I thought I would address this morning the matter of enforcement as an inter-agency issue – possibly the most important inter-agency issue for the criminal justice system.

Enforcement must be central to the whole purpose of the system. Over the years, a number of events have reminded me of that.  When I was Deputy Head of the Probation Unit, the police sometimes muttered to me that the probation service could be weak and ineffective. In response, I used to ask how the police enforced probation breach warrants and supported the probation service’s work with offenders.  “Oh, we don’t do that”  they replied, “that’s not a policing priority!”. So no surprise then that the probation service had become weak.

The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 has a number of features which are radically new. One of these is to require the police, local authorities and others to form statutory crime and disorder partnerships to tackle crime in their area and discharge the local authority’s duty – yes, duty – to do all that it reasonably can to prevent crime and disorder in its area.

Putting the police and local authorities in partnership together was initially a worry to some.  Wouldn’t this compromise the independence of the police? What has happened in practice is that everyone has come to appreciate that partnership working is not about one agency or organisation telling another what to do, but about independent agencies and authorities deciding to work together to achieve the same aim, whilst retaining their own independence and respecting each other’s.

That idea was at the heart of the original area criminal justice consultative committees, then the strategy committees and now the area criminal justice boards – autonomous, constitutionally independent agencies, deciding to deliver shared priorities, shared goals, and a common agenda. As a result, we are seeing a growth of real, active co-operation where previously agencies were stand-offish in the name of preserving their independence.

You can gain a measure of how far a crime and disorder partnership has gone down this route from how they operate. The first stage is exchanging information: goodness, how difficult that can be; but as soon as the partnership has this in place, they wonder what all the fuss was about.

The next stage is about understanding each others powers and co-ordinating how they are used. One obvious example is over abandoned cars. The police, local authorities and the DLVA all have powers over abandoned cars. Who did what used to be the main debate, with each trying to pass the buck to the other.  But if you collectively agree a target to get the cars shifted within 24 hours, you can do so relatively easily by co-operating over the use of each other’s powers. That is what now generally happens.

Perhaps the highest stage in the development of partnership working is the use of each other’s powers to improve enforcement.

One real example of this comes from Surrey. Two thieves used to travel by car together to commit burglaries. They were caught and sent to prison. When the time came for release, the police and probation service resolved together that the discharge licence – which is set by the prison Governor on the advice of the probation service – should contain a condition that these two offenders should not be allowed to travel in the same car together. A few days later, that’s exactly what the police found them doing and they were returned to custody.

Enforcement powers run like a thread through agencies.  The police derive their ability to enforce from the courts. If it becomes too difficult to secure a conviction, the police are left powerless. A topical example might be acquaintance rapes where conviction rates are so discouragingly low.

By contrast, the courts tend to be single-minded about enforcing their own orders. This means that one response to a troublesome offender is to charge him or her, not with their main offending like burglary, but with driving whilst disqualified – i.e. breach of a court order – which may be more certain to prove and which has a high rate of custody. That may sound odd, but it is what happens.

A number of other agencies – like probation (although it is not as dependent as it was), DATs, YOTs and local authorities in turn rely on the police for enforcement. In this way the thread of enforcement is extended, originating in the courts but running through to a wide range of agencies which enforce various aspects of the law. If that thread is seen by offenders as being intact and credible, then it is less likely to be tested than if offenders see the thread as weak and easy to break, with agencies not supporting each other.

It fell to me to give a grateful nation tagging. Before it was introduced, there was much taunting about how it would not work, be a waste of money and would bring the criminal justice system into disrepute. So from the start we took great care to build in credible and certain enforcement.  Indeed, as far as I am aware, there has been no successful challenge to a tagging breach.  Offenders know that there is no arguing against the computer evidence of their breach. That is the major reason why, with community sentences generally having successful completion rates of around 40%, tagging orders are successfully completed over 90% of the time.  Proper, certain, enforcement sees to that.

In order to tackle domestic violence criminal justice agencies need, like crime and disorder partnerships, to respect the independence and autonomy of their partner agencies, to develop ways of exchanging information, of sharing priorities and of making sure that each helps the other with effective enforcement. Domestic violence is classically about repeat victimisation: so exchanging information is the first and easiest way of addressing that. The new 24-hour helpline should make reporting and seeking help easier.  And a pro-arrest policy makes it clear enough that we take domestic violence seriously.

It needs to be absolutely clear to potential offenders that there is a seamless, inter-locking criminal justice system which knows how to take effective action and will do so.

There is probably a little way to go. Agencies have not historically had a shared sense of priorities. Some see domestic violence as less serious than others, and have not always taken the same view of the risks it presents to the potential victims.

Some of you will know that I was asked to review the circumstances surrounding the death of Gina McCarthy, who was murdered by her husband, Paul Russell. For those of you who don’t know the case, there is an account on the GOSE crime reduction website.

One of the features of that case was that, at the time, it was relatively easy for a husband to argue in child custody proceedings that he was a perfect father, even though he had been charged with unspeakable violence towards his wife, but the case was still waiting to be heard. That is now not so easy.  The civil and criminal courts can now speak to each other and recognise that a man who has been abusing his wife is also a risk to his children. That is an example of how enforcement has improved as the result of closer working.

Another example is in respect of the relationship between the police and the CPS. We have all seen this improve significantly over the last few years and that has been enormously good for the criminal justice system.

Very recently, there has been a step-change in some street crime areas as the result of the new priority being given by both agencies to street offenders, the increased use of pre-charge advice and the improvement which this has brought to the quality of police files. Increased levels of convictions have followed and the courts have decided to be less free in granting bail. I am in no doubt that part of the reduction in street crime is directly attributable to the improved thread of enforcement which is now in place.

In respect of domestic violence too, it is well known that the police are according it higher priority and the CPS has published its clearer, stricter, charging guidelines.  This has had a similar effect of improving their interface with the police. The thread of enforcement is better. But we have not yet, I suggest, extended the thread further and probably need to do so.

One starting point is the information flow between agencies. I am sure that this is quite good in the projects we will hear about shortly. But that’s the point: it’s probably nothing like so good elsewhere. For instance, we know that a woman is particularly at risk after she has signalled that she wishes to end the relationship. A non-violent relationship may suddenly become violent at this point. This is when women and children are murdered. It is a very dangerous time.

I would like to see awareness of that risk shared across agencies so that everyone can be on their guard and work together to protect the woman. That will involve information sharing, using each the powers as appropriate and agencies co-operating to help each other with enforcement. There’s no point one agency knowing that violence is taking place if it does not share that information in such a way as to protect the woman.

I recognise that this will involve protocols and all that. I want to be clear about the policy, and what we want to achieve, which is that agencies – including key services like health and education which may not normally see themselves as linked to the criminal justice system – have a shared understanding of domestic violence, their response to it and how they give it priority.

Furthermore, I would like to be confident that we are making the most of the changes introduced after the Gina McCarthy case, and the new CPS guidelines, in particular that there is always a good link between civil and criminal proceedings and that the civil proceedings do not put the woman or her children at risk.

And then I would like us to convey to the public at large that the thread of enforcement in respect of domestic violence is unbreakably intact and any offenders can expect a certain, effective and confident response from the criminal justice system.

This may involve stating time and again that because home should be a place of safety, domestic violence involves a breach of trust so serious as to become an aggravating factor as far as the criminal justice system is concerned.

Finally I need to make it clear that enforcement is not only about being punitive. For a start, we underestimate and undersell too often the power of formal cautions. They can draw a line in the sand to make it clear that offending is not tolerated. They have a low re-offending rate. Who knows? That great advocate, George Carman, might well not have continued with his domestic violence if he had been formally cautioned about it.

And it is quite common for enforcement to be a gateway to treatment. The most common example is in respect of drug taking. For countless drug takers it is only enforcement of the criminal law which will lead them to seek treatment and a change of lifestyle. Perpetrators of domestic violence can join programmes, of the kind run by Hampshire’s probation service.

I greatly welcome all that going on in Sussex and Hampshire – inclusion of Hampshire as one of the police forces in HMIC’s first thematic inspection of domestic violence; the fact that East and West Sussex have a domestic violence public service agreement; and the range of individual initiatives which are taking place here which we will be hearing more about shortly. Supporting each other involves taking the time to learn about each other’s contribution and being familiar with each other’s work.

But I know that only if the criminal justice system pulls together will we ultimately see a real difference. That will involve increasing recorded domestic violence in the South East, in the expectation that the number of victims – as reflected by the British Crime Survey – will fall.  This will also put us in a good position to take maximum advantage from the start of any Domestic Violence Bill.

It would be marvellous if, as a first step, we could reduce domestic violence levels in the South East down to those in the North of England.

Address given by Hugh Marriage OBE
Home Office Director, Government Office for the South East