It is telling that the review found that domestic abuse reports to the police did not escalate in the way they anticipated, despite unprecedented spikes in the number of calls to services like ours particularly as lockdowns eased and when schools re-opened in September last year and March this year. We saw a 117% increase in calls to our advice line in March 2021 compared to March 2020.
The Government’s delay in clarifying that domestic abuse survivors were still able to seeking help through the national lockdowns is likely to be part of the picture. Survivors we worked with throughout the last year were conscious of the national requirement to stay home and avoid putting pressure on public services. However, the dismal drop in charges between 2016 and 2020 and rise in closure of cases due to evidential difficulties and victim withdrawal also reflect the negative experiences of women seek help from the police to stop the abuse and so are dissuaded from doing so again.
While we recognise some of the improvements described in the report, variation between forces and between local borough command units in London persist. We recognise the lack of engagement with victims described in the report, as women are told their cases have been dropped without explanation, or have their testimony and credibility as witnesses undermined by officers they report to. For Black and minoritised survivors, Disabled women and for women with complex mental health needs, problematic substance use or street homelessness, the barriers to being treated as a credible witness are multiplied, yet devastatingly, so is the likelihood of being targeted by perpetrators of abuse.
We are pleased to see an increase in the use of Domestic Violence Protection Order (DVPOs) across the country but disappointed that the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) were unable to provide data on the number of (DVPO) applications they have made. DVPOs require alleged perpetrators to stay away from the survivor and their home for 28 days after a domestic abuse incident, giving survivors breathing space to get support and decide their next steps. During lockdown there was little movement in refuge and safe accommodation spaces and greater demand, so this window was even more vital to ensure survivors’ safety after their perpetrator had been reported to the police.
We agree with the reports recommendation that forces review where victims withdraw or there is a lack of evidence. The MPS should review the use by borough command unit and learn from those units and other forces where the percentage of domestic abuse victims withdrawing or being dropped for lack of evidence are lowest.
Improving the rate of charges and lowering the number of closed cases requires cultural changes in the police, but it also requires funding for Independent Domestic Violence Advocates to support survivors from the moment they report to the police, so survivors know what their rights are and are provided with independent support and advocacy.
If cases are to progress to prosecution and ultimately conviction, the Government must also urgently address the backlog in court cases, which disproportionately impacts domestic abuse and sexual violence cases, with investment to increase court capacity, staff and sitting days.