Are domestic abusers escaping justice as a result of police cuts?

10 September 2013

"Up to one in five wife-beaters could be escaping justice because of police cuts." The Mirror, 4 September 2013

Across the country, domestic violence incidents recorded by the police have risen in volume in the past few years. "At the same time" Yvette Cooper told the Mirror last week, "the majority of police forces have cut the number of cases they refer for prosecution by 20%".

On the strength of this data the Shadow Home Secretary has concluded that at least in those areas "one in five perpetrators who would have previously been charged are now getting away with it," and that this has happened as a result of cuts to police forces.

Labour's sources

When we contacted Yvette Cooper's team inquiring about their sources, we were sent a dataset which listed a number of sources: the number of incidents recorded were from the House of Commons Library, while data on domestic violence cases referred for prosecution came from individual police forces as well as the Crown Prosecution Service's reports on Violence Against Women and Girls.

Regrettably however, Labour won't allow us to publish their dataset. 

Labour's argument

According to the Labour Party, but police forces have been recording 10% more domestic violence incidents, overall they have been referring fewer to the Crown Prosecution Service.

Nationwide, the number of domestic violence incidents referred to the CPS by the police decreased by 13% from 101,242 in 2010/11 to 88,110 in 2012/13. In some police forces - according to Labour's unpublished data - this translated into a drop of over 20%. This is what led Yvette Cooper to claim that "one in five perpetrators who would have previously been charged are now getting away with it."

Problems with the statistics: Labour's data doesn't match official data

The Office for National Statistics also records data on the number of incidents of domestic violence by police force. When we compared the two datasets - Labour's and the ONS's - we noticed a series of discrepancies related to the number of incidents recorded in 2009/10 and 2010/11. The ONS's statistics offer us a slightly different picture. Given that they're indepedent and officially published statistics, our analysis from now on will use them as the main source. 

According to the ONS, the number of recorded domestic violence incidents grew by 7.8% (not 10%) from 739,099 in 2010/11 to 796,935 in 2011/12.

No data for 2012/13

An additional issue is that we don't know yet how many domestic violence incidents were recorded in 2012/13. Potentially, the drop in referrals for prosecutions is down to a drop in the number of recorded domestic violence incidents. We won't know until the ONS makes the data available. 

We pointed out to a Labour spokesperson that domestic violence incidents may have gone down in the last year. They said all evidence points to an increase, and referred us to the latest Crime Survey for England and WalesQuarterly data from the CSEW shows that domestic violence incidents increased by roughly 80,000 between 2011 and 2012: from 308,000 to 387,000. However these figures don't refer to the same time frame: while police forces record crime within the financial year (from April to March of the next year), the Crime Survey applies to the calendar year (from January to December).

So are up to one in five domestic abusers escaping justice?

In some police forces the number of domestic violence incidents referred did fall by 20% but there are a number of reservations about this headline claim.

  • It's not the nationwide figure. Nationwide, the figure domestic violence incidents referred for prosecution dropped by 13% between 2010/11 and 2012/13.
  • It's possible fewer cases were reported in 2012/13, which would usually lead to fewer referrals. In the years for which we have a full picture (2010/11 and 2011/12), the number of recorded incidents referred for prosecution dropped by 6%.
  • Crucially, this doesn't necessarily mean suspects are escaping justice. For every incident recorded by the police there isn't one domestic violence abuser. If we were to follow that logic, then the great majority of domestic abusers (around 90%) would already be escaping justice given that their cases aren't being referred to the Crown Prosecution Service. 
  • The proportion of cases referred to the Crown Prosecution Service has been fluctuating for years.

Has this been happening because of police cuts?

Though the number of domestic violence cases referred has dropped in recent years, we should also note that since 2010 the volume of cases referred has still been higher than in the three years between 2006/07 to 2008/09, long before austerity.

(Source: CPS Crime Against Women And Girls reports from 2008/092009/102010/112011/12 and 2012/13)

The proportion of cases the police has referred to the CPS for prosecution has also changed over the years: from a trough of 10.8% in 2008/09 - before the cuts were ever approved - to a peak of 13.7% in 2010/11 - just as the cuts were being rolled out. 

The lack of a clear trend either before or after spending reductions were rolled out makes it difficult to firmly conclude that the cuts are driving the latest fall. 

Caution should be exercised when looking at referral rates. An incident recorded by the police in February 2010 (financial year 2009/10), may end up being referred in May 2010 (financial year (2010/11). 

When crime statistics on domestic violence incidents recorded by the police are updated to include data for 2012/13, we might have a clearer idea of where the trend is headed. And even if it does show a downward trend, caution should be applied before making conclusive remarks about the causes. 

The number of domestic violence incidents referred for prosecution has dropped, in some police force areas by 20% and over. The national picture however presents us with a fall of 13%. We still don't know whether the most recent fall is due to fewer incidents being recorded by the police. Crucially, fewer incidents being recorded doesn't necessarily translate - in all instances - in more suspects escaping justice. 

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