I am beginning to wonder why the government does any research on justice issues. They either fight tooth and nail to keep their best reports secret, bury them, misinterpret them or fail to follow them up.
I’m afraid the report on unrepresented defendants in the Crown court (about which the ICO is taking criminal proceedings against the Ministry of Justice) is only the tip of the iceberg of secret research and analysis carried out by MoJ. Many reports never see the light of day. When I FOI them, my requests always get rejected.
A number of good published reports are ignored, maybe because their findings are inconvenient. The excellent 2010 evaluation of virtual courts is online, but it has never been quoted in any government communication since publication. Its main finding – that virtual courts cost more than physical courts – did not suit the narrative. A Justice Data Lab report on accommodation for those on bail/HDC suggested that those housed there were more likely to reoffend. This has been ignored too.
Misinterpretation of reports is also a problem. The MoJ process evaluation of pre-recorded video cross-examination of vulnerable witnesses has been used by judges, ministers and civil servants to claim that the pilot was a resounding success. But the evaluation didn’t say that. A process evaluation is the cheapest possible, and merely determines whether a programme has been implemented as intended. Only an outcome evaluation can determine the success of any measure. Witnesses who had undergone a pre-recorded video cross examination were interviewed as part of the process evaluation, but their views were not compared to those of witnesses interviewed on video “live” or to witnesses who appeared in the physical court. And we don’t know the justice outcomes of one versus another. Pre-recorded video cross-examination of vulnerable witnesses seems a good idea, but we still have no research to prove it.
The biggest mistakes made in relation to the evaluation of the Domestic Violence Protection Order were in the design of the research and the failure to follow it up – neither of which are the fault of the original researchers. The Domestic Violence Protection Order is a civil order designed to protect a domestic abuse victim. It imposes restrictions on the perpetrator (such as keeping away from the home of the victim, for 28 days), thus giving the victim “breathing space” to access services, and work out what to do. The government piloted DVPOs in 2011 in three police forces. The order was hailed as a resounding success on the basis of the evaluation, but is this justified?
Despite repeated suggestions in the report for it to be followed up, and despite the limited sample size, there has been no follow up research or monitoring of DVPOs. We know how many are imposed, but not how many are breached, nor how many victims access support services, nor how many perpetrators access programmes. Crucially, we have no idea how DVPOs are currently affecting the behaviour of perpetrators ie whether they are reducing domestic abuse.
The clear steer from the evaluation that DVPOs have no beneficial (and possibly a harmful) effect in cases where there have been two or fewer police call outs seems to have been completely ignored. I can’t find reference to it in police guidance, in inspection reports, or in the Home Office consultation on domestic abuse.
Victims, police and practitioners are quite positive about DVPOs. But given the lack of data and research, and indications they don’t work that well, I’m wondering why the government are proposing extending DVPOs (to be re-named Domestic Abuse Protection Orders or DAPOs) so they can be applied for by a wider group of individuals and agencies, and imposed by civil and family, as well as criminal courts? This looks like policy based evidence rather than evidence based policy. And responses to the current consultation on domestic abuse will only help a bit, since they’ll be based on personal experiences. Such testimony is valuable, but without well resourced, comprehensive, long term studies of the current DVPO, why risk extending its use?
PS If you have any experience of the domestic violence criminal justice process, and/or views on the DVPO/DAPO please fill in our survey