Domestic violence: do 19 in 20 abusers escape conviction?

11 March 2014

"'Scandal' of domestic violence as more wife beaters walk free. Nearly 19 out of 20 abusers escape conviction"

The Sun, 11 March 2014

Just days after International Women's Day, the Sun has reported on a 'scandal' of domestic violence towards women in England.

But its figure implying that 95% of abusers escape conviction shouldn't be taken too far. These figures are gender-neutral, so these aren't all 'wife beaters'. We don't have accurate figures as to the extent of domestic violence and the rates being quoted aren't 'conviction rates' in the usual sense of the term.

No single definition of domestic violence

Domestic violence can mean different things to different people and the way that it's recorded varies too. Even having a figure for specific domestic violence incidents doesn't adequately measure its prevalence more generally.

'Domestic violence' isn't something people can be arrested for by the police as it's not in itself a legal definition.

Instead, the police record 'incidents' (not necessarily crimes) of domestic abuse. These are cases where there is "threatening behaviour, violence or abuse (psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional) between adults, aged 18 and over", and is also the definition of domestic violence employed by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) when cases are referred to it by the police.

838,000 incidents of domestic abuse were reported to the police last year. 70,000 were prosecuted by the CPS. 52,500 convictions resulted.

But not all incidents of this sort come to the attention of police, so the Crime Survey also asks people about their own experience of domestic abuse - here more widely defined as "non-sexual emotional or financial abuse, threats, physical force, sexual assault or stalking carried out by a current or former partner or other family member".

Two million adults reportedly experienced domestic abuse in 2012/13 - 1.2 million female victims and 700,000 male victims.

Not conviction rates

The Sun's figures are based on the number of domestic abuse incidents recorded by the police: 838,000 in 2012/13 and the number of convictions for domestic violence secured by the CPS for the same year: 52,500.

But this isn't the conviction rate in the usual sense that the term is used. As was pointed out in the Stern Review in relation to rape conviction rates, the conviction rate usually describes the proportion of all cases brought before court that result in a conviction, not the proportion of cases reported to the police that end up as a conviction.

Basing it on all cases reported to the police means cases where individuals were acquitted in court are included. Cases that weren't taken forward for one reason or another or where there wasn't enough evidence to prosecute are included. This becomes a big problem when the figures are framed like the Sun's version: that 19 out of 20 "abusers" escape conviction. There's no evidence this is the case.

The CPS only prosecutes: "where there is sufficient evidence and it is in the public interest to do so". A total of 70,700 people were prosecuted for domestic violence last year. Using this as the basis of a conviction rate shows that 74% of prosecutions were successful.

This won't be a satisfactory figure for many either, but the lack of comparable figures on the prevalence of domestic violence and how it relates to CPS convictions means the numbers can't be taken much further.

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