Fewer than one in ten domestic abuse victims are seeing their attackers prosecuted because of a “shocking” failure by the police to pursue cases, says HM inspectors of police (HMI).

More than three quarters of cases of domestic abuse-related crimes are being dropped by officers without the perpetrator being charged, according to the investigation by HMI.

This represents an 18.6 per cent increase on the 59.5 per cent of cases shut five years ago, according to official data collected by the inspectorate. Just nine per cent resulted in a charge down from 23.2 per cent in 2016, with the remainder handled through cautions or community resolutions. 

Zoe Billingham, the Inspector of Constabulary, said: “Quite frankly, I was shocked that the crime closure rates are still so high, and still forces don’t have an understanding of the reason for this. You need to satisfy yourself that in each case you’re closing, it’s appropriate to do so.  

“Eight in 10 cases are closed really early on – there must be something going horribly wrong. There’s nothing to suggest this is associated with the pandemic. This is a trend that’s a worsening trend that I feel it’s incumbent to reveal because it is of such concern and magnitude.” 

How to spot signs of domestic abuse

‘Postcode lottery’ of domestic abuse cases

In the report on the policing of domestic abuse during the pandemic, the inspectorate said forces needed to review the high rates of cases being dropped, which could vary by as much as a third depending on the constabulary. 

Ms Billingham said it was a “postcode lottery” for which there was no justification. In many cases, there was no “auditable evidence” to show whether officers had engaged with victims about discontinuing their case. 

Inspectors said it often was not clear that forces had “taken all opportunities to support victims to engage in proceedings”. About 53 per cent of all cases were dropped when the victim did not support a prosecution, and 23 per cent were abandoned despite the victim wanting it to proceed. 

Ms Billingham said: “We understand that many victims don’t want their cases to go to court, but it’s the police’s job to build the case for them. When was the last time any of us heard the police asking a burglary victim if they wanted the police to take action?

“In some forces the process is completely lax, new and trainee officers lack the support, and cases are being closed really early so officers can deal with other things.” 

The problems have been compounded by growing court backlogs and delays during the pandemic. Ms Billingham expressed her concern that trials being set for dates as far away as 2023 could be “soul-destroying” for victims, endanger their safety, and see them disengage from the process. 

She said there were large numbers of summary trials in magistrates’ courts being “timed out” for crimes such as common assault after six months, she added, meaning offenders are “simply not being brought to justice”. 

Domestic abuse helplines

Backlog of 53,000 cases in crown courts

As of December 2020, 53,000 were backlogged in crown courts and outstanding cases in the Crown Prosecution Service had grown by 55 per cent.

Ms Billingham also praised forces for their work during the pandemic where they “flexed and adapted” to the problems posed by lockdown and demonstrated a “wealth of innovative practice”. 

These included sending links for virtual appointments to victims which left no trace on the victim’s phone or computer, which their abuser may check, working with businesses such as hairdressers so they could spot signs of abuse, and running media campaigns to promote “silent solution” systems for emergency contact. 

Assistant Commissioner Louisa Rolfe, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for Domestic Abuse, said: “We accept that there is still work to be done to improve the experience and service victims receive when they report abuse.  

“Domestic abuse cases are some of the most complex crimes that police deal with, and we’ve worked hard to increase victims’ confidence to report. 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.”