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Police face super-complaint

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Centre for Women's Justice, super-complaint, HMIPFRS, police, not protecting women, ‘There is a systemic failure to meet the state’s duty to safeguard a highly vulnerable section of the population.’

The Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ) has submitted a super-complaint which accuses the police of a “systemic failure” to protect a “highly vulnerable section” of the population to a national watchdog.

The super-complaint system, which covers all police forces in England and Wales, allows organisations to raise concerns on behalf of the public and confront systemic issues.

The Centre for Women’s Justice’s complaint to HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) makes four key claims that focus on bail for rape suspects and failures linked to non-molestation, domestic violence and restraint orders.

The Centre for Women’s Justice had become concerned that the various legal measures intended to provide protection to women are not being applied properly on the ground.

This super-complaint addresses four legal powers available to the police in detail and explores the extent to which, and the reasons why, they are not being used adequately.

It draws together accounts from eleven frontline organisations, whose full reports are to be found in the annex.

And when all the failures are taken cumulatively, CWJ believes that there is a systemic failure to meet the state’s duty to safeguard a highly vulnerable section of the population.

1 – Failure to impose bail conditions:

Frontline services have described the impact of the bail changes on survivors:

Women are living in fear: case studies in our report describe harassment and even violent assault by men who are not on bail. Even without further offending, women experience increased stress, insecurity and anxiety during a high-risk period following a report to police.

Suspects make contact with victims, leading to some withdrawing their support for the prosecution, especially where there has been a history of coercive controlling behaviour. Statistics show that the proportion of cases dropped due to victim not supporting them has risen.

It can be more difficult for women to access help from other state bodies such as housing departments and legal aid in the family courts, as no bail means the matter is treated as not serious.

Lack of arrest can hinder the police investigation, for example police powers to seize a suspect’s mobile phone.

Lack of bail makes women feel that the police are not taking their report seriously. Sometimes family and friends (who may often also be related to or close to the suspect) doubt the credibility of the victim’s account, as lack of bail gives the appearance that there is no police investigation.

2 – Failure to arrest for breach of non-molestation orders (NMO):

Breaches are trivialised by police officers, who do not understand them within the wider patterns of domestic abuse, harassment and stalking, and of escalating risk. Officers frequently treat breach incidents in isolation rather than seeing them in the context of the behaviour that led to the order being granted.

Officers do not have a correct understanding of the breach offence itself, including aggravating and public interest factors, for example where child contact issues are involved.

When women contact the police to report harassment, stalking and domestic abuse, they are often advised to obtain an NMO, rather than any policing action being taken. This outsources the effort and expense of obtaining protection to the victim. Obtaining legal aid can be a complicated process, and some women do not qualify and have to either pay lawyers or make the court application alone. In some cases they will have to face their abuser in court. Given these practical and emotional demands, it is particularly concerning that when such orders are breached perpetrators are not arrested.

Police officers sometimes incorrectly advise women to obtain an NMO when this is not available. Police guidance and training need to be improved so that the law around NMOs is correctly understood and officers correctly assess the inter-relationship between the criminal justice system and the family law system to find the most appropriate legal protection for each individual case.

3 – Failure to use of Domestic Violence Protection Notices and Domestic Violence Protection Orders (DVPNs and DVPOs)

Some of the frontline organisations reported that they have never come across the use of DVPNs and DVPOs, including organisations working in London. Statistics published by the Police Inspectorate showed that some police forces are not using them at all; the Metropolitan Police did not issue any DVPOs in 2017.

In other parts of the country forces are making limited use but frontline services report many missed opportunities. One service in Leeds states that in high risk domestic abuse cases approximately 100 recommendations per month are made for such orders, but statistics show that only three DVPOs per month are applied for by the police (population of Leeds 780,000). Nationally, statistics show over half a million domestic abuse crimes in the year ending March 2018, but only 5,600 DVPOs applied for, approximately 1 per cent of crimes.

There are anecdotal reports that police forces are not using these orders because they involve too much work for frontline officers in units that are already seriously under-resourced. Policing bodies have been raising concerns about low usage for several years since the powers were introduced in 2014, but this does not appear to have led to any significant increase in use. A new strategy and adequate funding are required if these protective measures are to make a real contribution to protecting women on the ground.

4 – Failure to apply for Restraining Orders

Several frontline organisations report that the police and prosecution frequently overlook making an application for a restraining order at the end of the case. Some state that they have to routinely check, chase and push police officers to ensure that applications have been made before trial, and that their staff attend court to request that orders are sought, as otherwise this is overlooked. The concern is that when women are not supported by a voluntary organisation, restraining orders are not obtained.

In the Magistrates Court, if an application is overlooked at the sentencing hearing there is no power to grant one later. This may be possible under the slip rule to correct a mistake, but the law is unclear, leading to confusion in court about whether the Magistrates have power to grant this or not.

It is important, the Centre for Women’s Justice points out, to appreciate the cumulative effect of these widespread failings, which together amount to a systemic failure on the part of the state to provide protection for some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

Use of these powers can prevent serious harm and a lack of response by police creates impunity, with perpetrators perceiving that there are no repercussions for their actions, and survivors1 perceiving that nothing happens when policing action is sought and that it is not worth reporting to police.

This systemic failure persists despite the government’s avowed determination to address violence against women and girls, since, as Home Secretary, Theresa May launched a Call to End Violence Against Women and Girls in 2010.

It also persists some five years after HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMICFRS) published its first thematic report on the policing of domestic abuse in 2014, with subsequent regular progress reports, the latest published only last month.

The police service adopted a “positive action” approach to violence against women and girls in 20082, yet that has not been reflected in practice on the ground, as identified by HMICFRS in its reports.

And one in five women killed by a current or former partner in 2017-2018 had been in contact with the police.

It appears from the evidence reported by frontline women’s services, that lack of protection for women is on the increase, partly resulting from a lack of understanding of abuse by police officers so that available powers are not properly utilised, and partly due to under-resourcing of police forces.

To see the full complaint, click here.

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