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Independent domestic violence advocates in magistrates’ courts – a backfire effect?

Penelope Gibbs
07 Mar 2022

Do programmes and interventions used in the criminal justice system work? Sometimes the best ideas fall flat on their face. And we only find out through quantitative research and evaluations. The sex offender treatment programme – an offender behaviour programme designed to reduce sex offending – was designed and accredited by experts. It ran for years before an impact evaluation discovered not only that it didn’t work, but that the prisoners who completed the programme were more likely to offend again than those who didn’t. The programme was promptly abandoned. Unfortunately, most other offender behaviour programmes run in prisons and by probation have no impact evaluation so, for all we know, they could be doing harm, good or nothing at all.

We have few high quality evaluations of domestic abuse interventions designed to protect and support victims or to reduce the offending of those who commit domestic abuse. The main programme delivered in prisons and by probation (Building Better Relationships) has never had an impact evaluation in the ten years it has been running, doctorate research by Dr Nicole Renehan, suggests it doesn’t work for many men with complex needs.

One of the major challenges facing those trying to get cases to court is victim “attrition” – that a high proportion of victims who report domestic abuse don’t want to stick with the criminal justice process. Those that do get to court can find the process traumatic. So campaigners in 2005 designed a new role – the IDVA or independent domestic violence advocate. IDVAs support complainants before (for high risk only) and during the court process. They give them emotional and practical support, explaining how the process works and sitting with them. They don’t give legal advice. A number of qualitative studies have shown how highly complainants value this service. Consequently the government has backed the expansion in their use and of their “sister” advocates, independent sexual violence advocates.

Until recently no one has checked what effect IDVAs might have on court outcomes and repeat victimisation, presumably because they have assumed that satisfaction with service is correlated with positive outcomes. But a new study suggests the link is broken – that availability of IDVAs at court is correlated with some quite negative outcomes for the victims. The research was based on a domestic violence court where IDVAs are available to support complainants some days a week but not others. The researchers (senior police officers doing post graduate study at the University of Cambridge, including Jackie Sebire ACC Beds) crunched all the outcome data for that court, comprising 559 domestic abuse trials. The data showed significant differences between days when the IDVA service was available – and therefore presumably used by complainants – and days when there was no IDVA to support people. Cases heard on days with access to the IDVA service at court were found to have a 12% reduced likelihood of their accused abusers being convicted, a 10% increased risk of repeat victimisation, and the harm of repeat crimes is 700% higher than victims whose cases were heard without that opportunity.

These are pretty surprising statistics, given that IDVAs are designed to make a positive difference to domestic abuse victims. There is of course no evidence of causation, but the correlation between the presence of the IDVA at court and more negative outcomes for the victims demands urgent further research to work out what is going on. Particularly since the Ministry of Justice recently announced further significant funding for IDVAs and ISVAs: “Crucially, £16m will fund the recruitment of more independent sexual violence and domestic abuse advisers across the country. They provide emotional and practical support for victims, while guiding them through the criminal justice process which many can find daunting”.

There has been very little reaction from the government or domestic abuse charities about this important research. It is indeed disappointing for IDVAs and the organisations that support them. But the most important thing is to acknowledge the findings, discuss what they might mean and commission new research to check these findings and to deepen understanding of what works in reducing domestic abuse. There is already good (College of Policing) evidence that criminal sanctions do not reduce abuse. If you look at the sanctions meted out in the magistrates’ court, that makes sense – why should a fine or community payback change abusive behaviour? Why not resolve such incidents without going to court?

Maybe we need to go back to first base and test or re-test all interventions designed to prevent and reduce abuse to check whether they work. And by work include a range of outcomes including victim wellbeing and feeling of safety as well as what effect the intervention has on police call-outs, repeat victimisation and offending. With finite resources to support victims and change abusive behaviour, we can’t afford not to follow the evidence.