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Almost two million UK adults have experienced domestic abuse in the last year

The latest Office for National Statistics figures on domestic violence, estimate that almost 2m UK adults (1.2m women, 713,000 men) aged between 16 and 59 have experienced some sort domestic abuse in the last year.

This might sound like a lot, but domestic violence is actually one of the most under-reported crimes. In 2016-2017 the police recorded more than 1m domestic abuse-related incidents and crimes. But less than half (488,000) of these were subsequently recorded as crimes – and only half of these led to arrests.

Issues with the way police record domestic abuse have been a major area of concern over the last few years. In 2014, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) – which independently assesses police forces and policing – reported that police were failing to record a significant number of crimes. This led to a review of all forces, with HMIC concluding there were unacceptable variations in police recording practices and responses to incidents of domestic abuse.

The latest data from the ONS reveals there are still wide variations in the recording practices of police forces. Durham, for example, had the highest number of recorded domestic violence incidents (37 incidents for every 1,000 people). But only around one-third (32.35) of those incidents were subsequently recorded as crimes. The percentage of incidents recorded as crimes is similar in Gloucestershire, Gwent and Greater Manchester.

Under-reported and unsupported

But these findings may not provide the whole picture, because HMIC found that a number of forces are not recording some incidents of domestic abuse at all.

These cases are instead referred on to other agencies – meaning these incidents never appear on the police log. And this may give some forces false “low” rates of domestic violence incidents, when in reality the picture is quite different.

The reviews conducted by the HMIC to date have found most forces are still under-recording domestic and sexual violence cases. And have also highlighted poor understandings of national policy, as well as poor recording processes across police forces. Concerns were also raised that some police forces were downgrading the “risk” in cases to justify a slower, or different, response.

Coercive control

A further concern is around police understandings and reporting of coercive control – which was introduced in the Serious Crime Act 2015. Coercive control is defined as ongoing psychological behaviour, which occurs over a period of time with the aim of removing a victim’s freedom.

The ONS figures published yesterday do not capture incidents of coercive control recorded by the police. However, new data collected by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism obtained from police forces using Freedom of Information requests (FOI) indicates the number of charges is low.

Their report shows that, of the 29 forces who responded to the FOI, at least 22 forces across England had seen fewer than two charges for every 100,000 people since the law was introduced in 2015. And recent research has also reported inconsistency in criminal justice practitioners’ understandings of coercive control.

Falling through the cracks

These latest statistics raise important questions about the way forces continue to record domestic violence. They also demonstrate the inconsistent way with which these cases are dealt with by different police forces across the country. And it suggests there may well be a postcode lottery for victims – both in terms of their report being recorded as a crime and the subsequent level of support offered.

Sadly, it is already the case that many victims are not being offered adequate support, as it is often only offered once an incident is recorded as a crime. And as many of the incidents do not lead to a criminal investigation or prosecution, perpetrators are not being held accountable – nor are victims being protected from further violence. This means that repeat victimisation is not being adequately captured by existing police recording practices.

Meanwhile, the demands on services which provide support to female victims of domestic violence has seen huge increases but resources have not increased with this demand. Local authorities have had their funding for domestic violence services cut by 24% since 2010.

Given that the latest data from the ONS also confirms there are fewer refuge services offering support to victims of domestic violence – 274 in 2017, which is 20 less than in 2012 – it is easy to see how the system lets so many victims fall through the cracks.

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