Beyond Reasonable Doubt: Challenging Domestic Abuse
Published on 27 November, 2023 | Emma Hubbard
Regular readers of this ‘blog will be aware that one of the topics which appears from time to time is domestic abuse.
That is because abuse is a feature in a considerable number of the cases dealt with by myself and my colleagues throughout the course of the year.
Back in September, my colleague Jodi Ford wrote about the latest report by the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, Nicola Jacobs (https://hallbrown.co.uk/domestic-abuse-and-the-family-court-progress-made-but-more-required/).
Ms Jacobs described how there had been a “sea change in how domestic abuse is understood and treated both by the public and by the state” over the course of the last few decades.
Nevertheless, she pointed out that more still needed to be done to support adults and children involved in family court cases in which suggestions of domestic abuse play a part.
The importance of such efforts has been given even greater currency by the publication of new figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
Using data extracted from the National Crime Survey, it shows that police across England and Wales recorded 889,918 complaints of domestic abuse in the 12 months to the end of March this year (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/bulletins/domesticabuseinenglandandwalesoverview/november2023).
To put that in a broader context, such allegations amounted to just over one-in-six of all offences recorded by the various police constabularies.
It’s also worth remembering that the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 introduced a new definition of abuse, meaning that not only physical violence but controlling or coercive behaviour, emotional and economic abuse are all taken into account (https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2021/17/contents/enacted).
Of the most recent complaints, 5.3 per cent (47,361) resulted in charges being brought by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and 4.4 per cent (39,198) in someone being convicted.
On the face of it, those outcomes may well be a source of concern, especially for those individuals who unfortunately find themselves in abusive relationships. They could even dissuade some victims from coming forward.
Yet I feel that the figures do not always reflect the realities of individual circumstances.
In some cases, for example, while some of those people filing a police report want to put the matter firmly on the record, they simply don’t want to press charges.
A number of those individuals will be worried about whether the economic impacts of a prosecution might compound the corrosive effects of abuse and end up making them even more vulnerable.
Might it, they fear, lead to a breadwinner losing their job and the family losing their home?
Furthermore, securing a conviction is not a straightforward process because many of these incidents happen behind closed doors and there may be little evidence unless someone can demonstrate obvious physical injuries.
Together, the police and the CPS will consider these issues when it comes to deciding about their prospects of meeting the criminal law test and proving a case “beyond all reasonable doubt”.
Having said all that, it is still vitally important that there are a range of measures which family courts can take to protect victims outside of any action by the police.
They include what are known as non-molestation orders which, according to statistics published by the Ministry of Justice, currently make up more than four-fifths of all domestic abuse remedy applications (https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/family-court-statistics-quarterly-april-to-june-2023/family-court-statistics-quarterly-april-to-june-2023#children-act—private-law).
No-one has to suffer in silence. There is a range of professionals with the skills, experience and sensitivity to help.
One of the other eye-catching details in the new ONS’ material is an increase in the number of men reporting abuse. Just over one-quarter of all domestic abuse complaints, in fact, are now made by men.
Although that, in itself, is alarming, I believe that it illustrates that efforts to raise awareness about male victims of abuse is paying off.
There has been a push across the criminal and family law systems by organisations to persuade men to speak out about their experiences of abuse.
Domestic abuse was perhaps viewed in the past as something which only happened to women but, as organisations such as the Centre for Social Justice have pointed out, that is no longer the case (https://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/newsroom/why-are-men-often-overlooked-as-victims-of-domestic-abuse).
Having more male abuse victims realise that they will be taken seriously and proceeding with a complaint is a sign of progress.