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When should a family dispute end up in court?

Penelope Gibbs
26 May 2021

The classic and horrifying image of domestic abuse is of a man hitting his female partner. A lot of domestic abuse is violent, most is perpetrated by men and is “intimate partner” violence – one half of a couple against the other. But this perception doesn’t apply to thousands of domestic abuse crimes. Much domestic abuse is non-violent, including coercive control where one person plays controlling mind-games with another. And just over a third of all domestic abuse is not partner on partner but family domestic abuse – for instance where a brother attacks a sister or a child attacks a parent.

Domestic abuse by family members is counted and dealt with exactly the same as abuse by a boyfriend against a girlfriend. A neighbour may call the police about a family fight they overhear, or a mother call at her wits’ end with her son’s violence. The blue lights attend as promptly whatever the domestic abuse call and are under strict instructions to take “positive action”, which usually means to arrest and prosecute the person who appears to have committed the abuse.

But does this police approach have a backfire effect on women? A new briefing from the Howard League suggests it might. There is already good evidence that the majority of women in prison have been victims of domestic abuse at some point in their life. A woman subjected to violence or coercive control is more at risk of committing an offence – through doing the bidding for the partner they fear. But an increasing number of women are also being prosecuted for committing domestic abuse, whether of partners or members of their family.

The Howard League has analysed the arrests of women in five police force areas and found some concerning evidence of women being drawn into the criminal justice system because of family fights. “A high number of arrests of women resulting in no further action are in relation to incidents in the home, often where women are victims but they have lashed out. Data obtained by the Howard League from five forces showed that, of the 221 arrests of women for alleged incidents flagged as domestic abuse or an alleged incident involving a partner or close family member, more than 60 per cent resulted in no further action (APPG, 2020). Data for one force showed that 20 of the 24 arrests of women for alleged violence flagged as domestic abuse resulted in no further action [NFA]”. In one case police were called to an incident where a mother and daughter were having a heated argument. The daughter had damaged a chair. She was arrested and detained in custody but later released without charge.

Its difficult for the police. If an incident is flagged domestic abuse, they usually attend in person and are under pressure not to let people off just because it’s a family dispute. But the number of women suspects who get released with no further action suggests we need a more calibrated approach to family fights. Maybe we could

  • Triage domestic abuse reports on the phone (as successfully piloted in Hampshire) so emergency response are sent out to those incidents where an imminent risk has been identified. All other incidents are followed up, but not as emergencies.
  • Send a social worker/specialist domestic abuse worker with police officers to help de-escalate the situation and to offer immediate support and services to victims.
  • Use more community resolutions and voluntary interviews (where assessment of risk allows) to avoid women being detained in police custody. Police detention is in effect imprisonment, is immensely stressful and should be used only where absolutely necessary.
  • Revise “positive action” guidance so police don’t feel obliged to arrest when a woman is involved in a family fight. Evidence suggests that arrest does not lead to more positive outcomes. It has to be used in many cases but the NFA figures for women indicate may be overused.
  • As the Howard League and Why Me? suggest, use restorative justice to resolve crime without using arrest or prosecution.

The work of the Howard League, the Prison Reform TrustWorking Chance and others shows that women accused of crime are often the victims of violence and/or coercive control and that, when accused of domestic abuse themselves, they are too often arrested. Arrest is the gateway to prosecution. A minority (8%) of domestic abuse prosecutions are of women, but that percentage is slowly rising. Let’s stop women being swept into the criminal justice system.