I have spent a lifetime tackling the most insidious crimes and behaviours which impact on the most vulnerable in society. My memoir “The Prosecutor” published by Penguin Random House this spring gives you a flavour of the brave and courageous victims and those supporting them who have helped me deliver justice. Prevention is however the ultimate goal, not dealing with the consequences of the harm that had been caused
There were 750,000 reports of Domestic Violence to police in Year ending March 2019. That in itself is the tip of the iceberg, the British Crime Survey indicates that there were more than 2 million victims.
Of these only 100,000 referred to prosecutors and of these 75,000 prosecuted. Arguably a small response to what is the epidemic of our times.
Victimless or evidence based prosecutions are seen Worldwide as one of the best ways of improving the offender conviction rate whilst protecting the victim from the trauma of giving evidence. Victims have a multitude of reasons why they don’t support the prosecution - duress, fear, shame, family pressure for example. Men as victims particularly blame themselves and refuse to support a prosecution.
However, if the prosecution have a 999 call recording, police body worn camera evidence showing the scene of the incident and capturing the demeanour of the people involved, medical evidence, police statements and interviews then you have a strong enough case to take to court. It’s then also usually in the public interest to prosecute too. Many people each week are convicted with less
Prosecutors must also consider the vulnerability of the defendant based not on press cuttings, but in representations from the defence lawyers. Again, this is a balancing exercise and the more serious the allegation, the less likely that the vulnerability of the accused will stop the prosecution.
We must never forget there are more than 120 domestic homicides every year and each one of them teaches us that earlier intervention by police just might have prevented them. We can expect more victimless prosecutions not less because they want to reduce the chances of a murder where the victims don’t get the choice to give evidence at all
The Domestic Abuse Bill
The Domestic Abuse Bill going through Parliament is a once in a generation attempt to legislate our way out of the most insidious crime blighting our society. Millions of victims ranging from 100+ murders to tens of thousands of assaults and control crimes. The vast majority of victims being women.
The pandemic has only made things worse as more victims are created with little ability to keep away from their abusers.
The Bill creates a domestic abuse commissioner and domestic abuse protection orders which you can apply for. However, it’s a missed opportunity in so many ways.
"The domestic abuse bill is a missed opportunity in many ways"
Perpetrators of abuse often use contact provisions in Family courts to control their ex partners. It’s hidden abuse and often inadvertently sanctioned by the state. This needs wholesale reform, and it took a concerted campaign to get the Government to listen.
Victims of abuse have enormous hurdles to overcome before getting help. For example, those whose immigration status isn’t settled, who invariably struggle to get legal aid.
Recently, the bill outlawing child marriage at 16 or 17 years of age failed to make it into the statute books. Many of these children (and legally they are) will be forced into marriage, but simply making it unlawful to marry until 18 could save hundreds from further abuse. It would take 2 extra lines in the Bill.
We have registers for sex offenders and belatedly we have Clare’s law which enables people to ask the police for information on the previous criminal abusive history of their new partners. The problem with Clare’s law is that it puts the onus of finding out on the potential victim. A register of stalking and domestic abuse offenders would put the onus on the authorities to manage the abuser and alert potential victims. Again, the Bill is deficient.
Victims tell me that judges sometimes just do not understand that abuse is happening. They expect a black eye or broken arm before they step in. Controlling and coercive behaviour became a criminal offence 4 years ago but is little understood and very few prosecutions follow. Mandatory training for judges would make a big difference.
Then there’s the issue of Refuge funding. A victim should be safe in her home, and the first thing that authorities do is to move her out and leave the perpetrator there! No, it should be the other way round. Refuges are struggling financially. There aren’t enough of them and usually only have 1 years funding. So come the end of the financial year, the staff don’t know if they have a job and worse, the victim and her children don’t know they have a roof over their heads. The Bill should require authorities to give them multi year funding so they can plan and save more lives.
Did you know many victims will stay with their abuser because they have a family dog or cat? They don’t want to leave their loved pet with him. Very few refuges also take animals. The Dogs Trust is trying to help but there’s too little they can do.
Ultimately, it’s education and awareness that will save victims. That needs to be mandated to.
From this brief summary, you can see more needs to be done. We can prevent harm in all our communities, but the Government needs to listen and act. We all have a responsibility to look for the signs and take action. We cannot lose another generation of victims
Nazir Afzal OBE
Former Chief Prosecutor.
My memoir ‘The Prosecutor” is available from all good bookshops and also online in Ebook and Audio