Transforming the response to domestic abuse

Closes 31 May 2018

Improving victims experiences of the justice system

We want to ensure victims have confidence in the justice system. Confidence that it is a fair, impartial system that recognises the full spectrum of domestic abuse.

We recognise that the justice system can be daunting and that victims of domestic abuse may disengage from the process or may not want to be involved at all for a number of reasons. For example, due to the level of fear and control exerted by the perpetrator or concern that they will not be believed.

Crown Prosecution Service data on cases flagged as domestic abuse shows that over half of prosecutions (54%) which do not secure a conviction are due to victims retracting their statements, not attending court to give evidence, or otherwise not supporting the case.[1]

A technique to avoid delay likely to cause victims to retract their statements has been the arrangement of faster trials.

Case study: speeding up court proceedings

In one Crown Court Centre, domestic abuse cases were being tried on average somewhere between 6 to 9 months after the event. This delay meant that the victim’s circumstances may have changed and in virtually every case the victim had "moved on with their life” and no longer wished to support the trial.

Working with other criminal justice agencies and the defence, the Resident Judge has started a trial of a 'fast track' process for domestic abuse cases. To make this procedure work in practice, it is only used in straightforward cases where the issues are limited so that cases are usually completed within two hours. All these straightforward domestic abuse cases are tried within two weeks and one day of the Resident Judge first reviewing the case.

In order to achieve this accelerated process, the police have agreed that in these cases a full file of evidence would be served (including body-worn camera footage) when the case is sent from the magistrates’ court. This is reviewed by two dedicated Crown Prosecution Service prosecutors. Local defence advocates have also supported this initiative following excellent local engagement.

While this initiative is working well at this particular crown court, it will be a matter for the senior judiciary to determine if it is suitable for other crown court centres bearing in mind their size, capacity, workloads and other interdependencies.

A range of mechanisms are designed to help support victims to give their best evidence. This includes:

  • special measures for vulnerable and intimidated witnesses
  • prohibiting unrepresented defendants from cross-examining victims
  • support from the witness care unit (who are the single point of contact for victims and witnesses for information regarding the progress of their cases)
  • the court-based witness service (who can provide emotional support and practical advice and information to witnesses in criminal proceedings)
  • criminal justice professionals specially trained in domestic abuse

Independent Domestic Violence Advisors (IDVAs) are available in many areas to support victims through the justice system.

Case study: Co-location of police and IDVAs

In Durham the IDVAs are co-located with the police. They act as the single point of contact with the victim and liaise closely with Witness Care Unit and the prosecution on the victim’s behalf. They inform the victim of case progression as well as providing them with emotional and practical support. The IDVAs accompany victims on pre-trial familiarisation visits.

They ensure that a copy of the Victim Personal Statement is taken to court so the prosecutors have this on the day of the trial. They speak regularly with the prosecution to ensure all available information and evidence for the trial is available.

The IDVAs have access to the exhibit court systems which enables them to review the daily court listings and status of the cases. They also offer practical advice to the courts such as help drafting restraining orders.

One example of our efforts to continually improve our response is the work by the National Criminal Justice Board, chaired by the Justice Secretary.

This has overseen a cross-criminal justice system exercise on domestic abuse – called the domestic abuse ‘deep-dive’ project - which developed and tested a best practice framework for use across all Magistrates’ Courts.

It is a multiagency project which followed high performing court areas (in terms of high conviction rates for domestic abuse related offences) to identify the key reasons behind their performance and how these practices might be extended to other courts.

Special measures in criminal proceedings

Victims of domestic abuse may already have access to special measures if the court is satisfied that the quality of evidence given by the victim is likely to be diminished by reason of fear or distress in connection with giving evidence.

There are a range of special measures available but the most commonly used is a screen – allowing the witness to give evidence in the court room without being seen by the defendant and the public gallery.

Currently prosecutors apply for these special measures for victims of domestic abuse at the first court hearing on the basis that they are eligible for assistance on grounds of fear or distress under s17(1) of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act.

We could create a legislative assumption that all victims of domestic abuse are to be treated as being eligible for assistance on the grounds of fear and distress, if the victim wants such assistance.

If the victim is deemed to be eligible for assistance the court will then determine whether any available special measures would be likely to improve the quality of the evidence given by the witness and whether the measure might inhibit a party effectively testing that evidence.

This is similar to the assumption for victims of other specific offences such as sexual offences and modern slavery offences.

As a result, the prosecution would not have to establish eligibility for special measures on the grounds of “fear or distress”, simply that the special measure (such as a screen or evidence via video-link) is likely to improve the quality of the evidence and would not inhibit any party effectively testing that evidence.

This would mean the victim would have greater certainty from the outset that they would not have to face the accused in court.

38. Do you think creating a legislative assumption that all domestic abuse victims are to be treated as eligible for assistance on the grounds of fear and distress (if the victim wants such assistance), will support more victims to give evidence?

39. Is there more this government could do to explain the range and remit of existing measures for victims to help support them in the criminal justice process?

Cross examination in criminal proceedings

At present if a defendant is unrepresented in criminal proceedings, the court can make an order to prevent the victim from being cross examined by the defendant in person. Instead a lawyer will be instructed to do so on behalf of the defendant. The court can do this on its own or on an application by the prosecution.

40. Do you know of instances in criminal proceedings when an application to prevent cross-examination of a victim by an unrepresented defendant has been denied in a domestic abuse case?

In sexual offence cases, there is a prohibition on victims being cross-examined by an unrepresented defendant. This means that victims know from the outset that they will not be cross-examined by the accused in person. This could be extended to victims of domestic abuse in criminal proceedings.

41. Do you think extending the prohibition on cross-examination in criminal proceedings would support more domestic abuse victims to give evidence?

While family courts have a range of powers to make sure difficult courtroom situations are handled sensitively for vulnerable witnesses, they do not, unlike the criminal courts, have a specific power to prevent perpetrators of abuse (alleged or otherwise) from cross-examining their victims in person.

The government is committed to addressing this issue and will legislate to give family courts the power to stop this practice as soon as legislative time allows.