Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Justice is being denied for women

Vera Baird says police and crime commissioners have had an impact locally, but a broader strategy for tackling violence against women and girls is needed

Last year 1.2 million women suffered domestic abuse. That is more victims in 12 months than the populations of Manchester and Bristol added together. And in the past two years 241 women have been killed by male abusers.

Four-fifths of victims do not go to the police, but even so, the 488,000 domestic crimes recorded are a third of all violent crime. Prosecutions crashed last year with the number of reports up 16 per cent but fewer than 71,000 convictions. Meanwhile, the annual cost of domestic abuse to the United Kingdom, to health services, in lost employment, to the justice system and in damage to the social fabric is a staggering £26bn – about £500 a year for every individual currently living in England and Wales.

Domestic abuse is defined as a perpetrator controlling their partner using physical, sexual, psychological, emotional or financial abuse. It was poorly understood by the justice agencies so the Labour government established special domestic abuse courts to be staffed exclusively by fully trained personnel. However, my office organised a recent observation of our local court to see how it was working and found a worrying return to poor understanding.

In 21 cases where the defendant had pleaded not guilty, over half changed their plea to guilty as soon as the complainant attended court. One judge was clear that this was ‘gaming the system’: the defendant knew he was guilty but hoped his partner would not come and may have thought he could ‘persuade’ her not to. Yet, in another 13 not guilty cases, the complainant who had been expected to attend did not turn up, leading the court immediately to dismiss the case. A bench with trained magistrates would have adjourned to make sure that these were not simply more successful examples of ‘gaming the system’ with better ‘persuasion’.

Meanwhile, rape reports increased, as confidence grew post-Jimmy Savile. There were 85,000 last year, about 10 rapes happening every hour. Prosecutions had begun (slowly) to improve only to go into dramatic reverse this year, with 23 per cent fewer cases going to court. The Guardian quoted two senior Crown Prosecution Service figures who had told staff to take 350 ‘weak’ cases out of the system to get their conviction rate up to 61 per cent. The likeliest victims of that policy would be vulnerable complainants and though CPS deny any change, both police and rape support groups say the bar has been shamefully raised.

At the same time there is unsettling confusion about the police attitude to rape in the aftermath of a failed sexual abuse case where police had told the media that the evidence of a male victim was ‘credible and true’. An inquiry claimed that those officers were ‘forced’ by a police rule always to ‘believe’ sex offence complaints. In truth, the rule merely requires accepting in the first instance that allegations are true and investigating thoroughly. That is what the police do in every criminal case. It had to be written down for rape allegations because of serial complaints that officers disbelieved them

John Worboys, the taxi driver rapist, was able to offend for a decade because 14 women who complained of rape were disbelieved. And Stylist magazine this year quoted Rape Crisis South London saying, ‘Many survivors tell us that the damage that police disbelief does can never be rectified.’

Little evidence of over-believing, then. And the disastrous impact if police announce a shift of policy against believing rape complainants – and only rape complainants – can only be imagined.
Recent prosecution disclosure failures, contrary to press reports, have caused more burglary, theft and assault trials to collapse than rapes. Failing to disclose material that helps the defence is unforgivable but in rape cases there is an unacceptable demand for disclosure against the complainant.

She will be required to sign blanket consent for police and CPS to access all of her medical and psychiatric, social services, counselling and school records. If the same person reported a physical assault no such material would be required. It seems as if this is more evidence that rape complainants are disbelieved, treated as suspect and requiring a search of their private lives to see if they are truthful. Anything that can be used to discredit her will be handed to the defence. In a recent Newcastle case, a complainant was branded a systematic liar because she had forged her mother’s signature on a letter to school a decade before.

The law simply requires that police pursue reasonable lines of inquiry into the case and disclose anything they find that might undermine their case or assist the defence. There is no requirement, let alone justification for a separate trawl of personal material. Few cases of burglary, fraud or any other crime would get to court if every complainant had to undergo this scrutiny. But, currently, if rape complainants do not sign up for full disclosure, the CPS refuses to prosecute.

The police problems seem to be new versions of old myths about the prevalence of false complaints in rape and they suffuse stalking, honour-based violence, trafficking and many kinds of online abuse as well. The CPS saw violence against women and girls convictions as a challenge but now seem intent on ducking difficult cases. Domestic abuse is not understood, the threat to victims is being characteristically devalued by the courts, and the CPS – similar to their approach in rape – are taking fewer cases forward.

It is fair to say that seeing beyond rape myths and understanding domestic abuse are not intuitive. They take continual training and reinforcement and when resources are cut, training is the first thing to go. But these are serious crimes with profound, long lasting impacts. Their handling is hugely marred by sexist assumptions and until the national culture catches up, the criminal agencies have to learn to lead on these issues in order to ensure justice.

At police and crime commissioner level, most of us chair our local criminal justice boards, bringing all the agencies together in our community’s interests, ensuring, for instance, a good local response to our court observations, though the CPS and the Courts and Tribunal Service are nationally governed from London. It is possible that best practice can filter upwards through effective joint working but only police forces are local. So I can ensure training only for them about coercive control and the influence of rape myths.

But PCCs have profile, small amounts of funding and wide-ranging responsibilities for victims services and crime prevention, all of which give leverage to innovate. So, in Northumbria we send a car staffed by a police officer and a refuge outreach worker to every peak-time domestic abuse 999 call to offer options for support. We have domestic and sexual abuse champions in hundreds of workplaces. We identify perpetrators of domestic abuse and tackle them, with surprising success, through a multi-agency scheme called a Matac.

Commissioners influence national policy by promoting successful local schemes and through membership of various government boards but the sustained culture change required, if the criminal agencies are to do justice to violence against women and girls requires national leadership.

In 2014 the Labour Women’s Safety Commission advocated a Violence Against Women and Girls Act, compelling government to develop and implement a cross-departmental violence against women and girls national strategy and one for each regional area. The act would also create a national violence against women and girls commissioner, supported by a board of advisers, to assume leadership in the development of those strategies and ensure their implementation. Importantly the statute would, in correspondence with the Istanbul convention (which this government gets no nearer to ratifying year by year) require that sufficient resources are applied for the strategies to be fully and consistently implemented. And they would have at their heart enabling a modern criminal justice system to deliver justice for victims of violence against women and girls.

The government also needs to launch a massive public information campaign, busting the myths around violence against women and girls, like the one which successfully changed attitudes to drink driving, but with tenfold its strength and duration. Yet the Tories have not even kept their promise to introduce sex and relationships in every school. Its domestic abuse bill is slight compared to the prime minister’s declarations of intent and the domestic abuse commissioner role is narrow, poorly resourced and lacks teeth. At the same time that the Home Office proposed this bill, the Department for Communities and Local Government announced a change to refuge funding that would have permanently decimated provision and cancelled any benefit legislation might bring.
There is no doubt that recent reverses in tackling violence against women and girls in the courts also relate to government cuts. Local agencies cannot deliver national change. Leadership and long-term funding that ensures stability, gives support to those who need it and secures the vital training that will shift the sexist assumptions out of the legal system are imperative, since at present justice is being denied.

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Vera Baird is police and crime commissioner for Northumbria

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Vera Baird

is police and crime commissioner for Northumbria

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