Domestic abuse in England and Wales

8 March 2018

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A word of warning

Domestic violence and abuse are notoriously hard to measure accurately, or even define consistently.

Even if you do get a count of how many people fall victim, which requires people to come forward, it’s difficult to measure how often it’s happening. A single incident is measurable enough, a long-term abusive relationship isn’t.

These are the kinds of questions the police and experts face when they try to paint a picture of this issue. There are a lot of different pictures being shown, but none of them have a perfect answer.

Defining domestic violence and abuse

The definition used across government is:

“any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality … ”

The two terms are often used interchangeably, although they do sometimes refer to different things. Broadly, violence refers to physical harm, while abuse tends to encompass that along with things like financial (like being prevented from having money) and emotional abuse.

Unless we’re talking about physical violence specifically, we’re using ‘domestic abuse’ in this piece to include all these things.

Prosecuting perpetrators

There’s actually no legal definition of domestic violence or domestic abuse, so there are no actual criminal offences under those names.

Instead, people are prosecuted under a range of offences which can be linked to domestic abuse, such as threats to kill, assault or rape.

Domestic abuse is “rarely a one-off incident” though, and can happen in ways that don’t fall neatly into existing crimes. Until 2015, there wasn’t any specific law to account for this.

new law enacted in December 2015 aimed to close that gap by making “controlling or coercive behaviour in intimate or familial relationships” a crime. Detailed guidance published by the government explains the law in more detail. The Crown Prosecution Service brought 309 charges under the new law to a first hearing by 2016/17.

How widespread is it?

Official figures on domestic abuse come from a lot of different places, and which one you choose depends on whether you are interested in how many victims, offences or perpetrators there are, and what happens to them.

If you want to know about how many people fall victim every year, there are two sets of figures from the Crime Survey for England and Wales:

  • The number of domestic violence victims: as recalled by victims in a face-to-face interview
  • The number of domestic abuse victims: as recalled by victims in a self-completion exercise

For an idea of how many instances of domestic abuse are happening, there are three options provided by the police:

  • The number of crimes recorded under the new 2015 law of controlling or coercive behaviour
  • The number of other crimes that are related to domestic abuse: as flagged by the police
  • The number of incidents of domestic abuse: as reported to the police

Finally, to know about what happens to perpetrators, there are three sets of figures from the Crown Prosecution Service:

  • The number of cases referred to the CPS by the police
  • The number of prosecutions pursued by the CPS
  • The number of convictions secured by the CPS

So what do these sources tell us?

An estimated two million victims a year

26% of women aged 16-59 report having experienced some kind of domestic abuse as adults. 15% of men report the same.

In the last year alone, 8% of women and 4% of men report experiencing some form of domestic abuse. Both show falling trends over the last decade.

In the last year that amounts to some two million people in England and Wales having experienced any form of domestic abuse, from violence to emotional and financial abuse, two thirds of whom are women.

Abuse by a partner is the most common form, but by no means the only one.  Abuse by family members or former partners, including stalking, make up a large number of cases.

Those figures come from the Crime Survey, which involves conducting interviews at people’s homes and asking about their experience of crime. For these particular questions, though, the victim completes the questions alone in a ‘self-completion’ section of the survey. That helps avoid some cases where people are unwilling to talk about personal experiences.

Figures of a few hundred thousand victims are too small

Another set of Crime Survey figures tell you that an estimated 261,000 people were victims of domestic violence in 2014/15. This is just physical violence: so covers cases of wounding, assault and violence without injury like kicking or pushing.

If you’ve seen this number, or anything similar to it, it’s almost certainly too small.

These figures are based on face-to-face interviews, and so mean that victims are less likely to report their experiences frankly. Research has shown that rates of physical violence picked up by the self-completion method are five times those discovered by face-to-face interviews.

The Crime Survey tells us about victims. Meanwhile the police can tell us about incidents and offences. Police figures have limited value because there is a known problem of under-reporting when it comes to their figures on domestic violence.

Over 480,000 offences flagged by police last year

The law on controlling or coercive behaviour is the only one that specifically covers domestic abuse. Other crimes which are part of domestic abuse will be recorded as ‘assault with injury’, for example, and flagged by the police.

4,200 offences of coercive control were recorded by 38 of the 43 police forces in the year ending March 2017.

Another option is to look at crimes that are flagged by police as being related to domestic abuse. That’s a decent measure because all kinds of different crime can be involved in domestic abuse cases, although it’s still limited to what the police actually notice.

That gives us about 488,000 offences for the year ending March 2017, which accounts for about 11% of all crimes recorded by the police. This is a 16% increase on 2015/16. The Crime Survey doesn’t show the same increase and recorded crime is likely to have been affected by improvements in recording and more victims being willing to report offences.

Comparing this to the two million estimated victims of domestic abuse in the same year is just one indication that not all cases are coming to the attention of the police.

Almost 580,000 incidents recorded by the police

What’s the difference between this section and the previous one, and why is the number bigger?

It’s because we’re now talking about incidents, rather than crimes.

Incidents are just events that are reported to, referred to or discovered by the police that they have to record in an incident report. But they don’t all become crimes. An example is where the police are called to a loud argument by a third-party, they calm the situation and no crime has taken place. The police have to follow a set of rules to determine whether an incident should count as a crime.

That means some cases of domestic abuse could be logged as incidents but not meet the criteria to be counted as crimes. On the flipside, it also means some incidents of domestic abuse won’t be genuine cases.

There were 580,000 incidents of domestic abuse recorded in 2016/17. These were times the police were alerted and did not record that a crime had taken place.

As discussed, this can’t tell us a huge amount, however. The way data is collected has changed so this figure isn’t comparable to 2014/15 and before when the figures were much higher.

70,000 convictions for domestic violence

If the police investigate a crime and decide there’s enough evidence, the case will be referred to the Crown Prosecution Service. 111,000 domestic abuse cases were referred in 2016/17. Typically around 100,000 cases are referred each year.

The CPS won’t pursue every case and has to decide if there’s enough evidence and public interest to prosecute someone. 94,000 prosecutions were pursued by the CPS in 2016/17, and 71,000 convictions were secured. So over three-quarters of prosecutions were successful, almost all because the defendant pleaded guilty.


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