Police must immediately review why so many domestic abuse cases are dropped, a watchdog has said after it found victims were put at greater risk during the coronavirus pandemic.
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) said it was of “huge concern” that, on average, three-quarters of domestic abuse-related crimes are closed by police in England and Wales without the perpetrator being charged.
But in the inspection of how officers responded to domestic abuse during the pandemic, forces were also praised for the efforts made to prevent the crime and protect victims.
Inspector of constabulary Zoe Billingham told reporters: “Quite frankly I am shocked that the crime closure rates are now so high and are worsening and still forces don’t have a good understanding of the reason for this.
“In my professional judgment, it cannot be right that after domestic abuse crimes have been reported to the police, for three-quarters of these crimes to then be closed for so-called evidential difficulties.”
According to figures highlighted in the watchdog’s report, in the year to March 2020, on average 54.8% of cases were discontinued where a suspect has been identified but the victim no longer supported the prosecution.
Some 20% of cases did not proceed even with the support of the victim because there were “evidential difficulties”, which can include a lack of evidence being gathered.
Other data also suggested the charge rate for domestic abuse in England and Wales continues to fall, from an average of 23.2% in 2016 to 9% in 2020 – a drop of 14.2%, the report said.
While the figures pre-date the pandemic, Ms Billingham said victims were at “greater risk” during the outbreak when lockdown restrictions made it even harder to escape abusers and that the problems with closure rates could have been “exacerbated” in the last year.
She added: “I don’t predict that there will be any improvement in those rates as a result of the pandemic. And that’s why we are so concerned and we are saying to forces ‘you really need to get on to this’.”
But she also applauded forces for seeking out known victims to check how they were during the pandemic and highlighted some “brilliant” innovative ways of making sure they were safe, adding that the police had shown they are “dedicated to protecting victims of domestic abuse”.
Despite the concerns, there has been a “positive shift over the last few years with the police prioritising domestic abuse”, she added, but warned victims “should not be discouraged from reporting”.
Ms Billingham said it was the police’s job to “build the case for the victim” but in some instances it was not clear that forces were taking “all of the opportunities to undertake an effective initial investigation” and some were “pushing back” the decision on to the victim.
She said: “When was the last time any of us heard of the police asking a burglary victim if they wanted the police to take action? It doesn’t happen. But it happens repeatedly in crimes of domestic abuse.”
Assistant Commissioner Louisa Rolfe, who leads the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s work on domestic abuse, said the police response to the crime had improved and remained a priority for officers but accepted there was “still work to be done to improve the experience and service victims receive”.
She said: “I want to reassure victims of domestic abuse who come forward that they will be listened to, treated with respect and compassion and a thorough investigation will be launched.
“We are constantly learning and developing, and will carefully consider the inspectorate’s findings and recommendations as we continue to get better.”