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Domestic Violence Prosecutions

Volume 695: debated on Thursday 20 May 2021

The Crown Prosecution Service published an ambitious 12-month domestic abuse programme in January, which aims to help to narrow the disparity between reporting and criminal justice outcomes through a focus of co-ordinated multi-agency action and specialist support for victims. The CPS has also taken steps to increase domestic abuse prosecutions at a local level. For example, since the start of the pandemic, CPS Thames and Chiltern has increased lines of communication with police forces to ensure domestic abuse cases are appropriately prioritised.

The criminal justice system is facing unprecedented backlogs, with survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault forced to wait more than a year for their day in court. The Queen’s Speech was an opportunity for the Government to address these failings, but it was an opportunity missed. Labour’s “Ending Violence Against Women and Girls” green paper was announced this week and is ready to go. Will the Attorney General support it?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, which focuses on an extremely important issue of domestic abuse, which is one that I and the entire Government feel strongly about. In fact, I am sure everybody in this Chamber does. It is this Government who introduced the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. In a recent case that I conducted myself in the Court of Appeal, the offender’s sentence for extremely violent domestic abuse was increased from nine years to 15 years on my application. That is how seriously we take domestic abuse, and that is how seriously it is taken in terms of punishment and the crime. The point that the hon. Lady makes is that we should prioritise domestic abuse in the criminal justice system, and I can confirm that we do that. It is a very high focus for this Government and for the criminal justice system.

The “Evidence led domestic abuse prosecutions” report states that

“the domestic abuse caseload for both the CPS and the police has increased by 88% against the backdrop of a 25% reduction in police and CPS funding.”

Does the Attorney General think that the current level of resourcing to tackle domestic abuse is sufficient?

The hon. Lady is right to point to the case load. In fact, the Crown Prosecution Service’s case load has increased considerably. It is also right to point out that the conviction rate rose to 78.7% in quarter 3 of 2020-21, up from 77.4%. The Government have recently announced, as I am sure she knows, several funding packages specifically on domestic abuse, including funding to deal with the effects of the covid-19 crisis as it relates to domestic abuse. The decrease in the volume of overall prosecutions due to the impact of covid-19 is a factor, but this Government are funding this area and giving particular focus to it.

The number of domestic abuse-related prosecutions fell by 22% in the year ending March 2020, despite a 9% increase in recorded crimes. When I asked the Secretary of State for Justice how many specialist domestic violence courts have been in operation over the past 10 years, he could not give me an answer. Will the Attorney General commit to our proposals, set out in our “Ending Violence Against Women and Girls” green paper, to introduce properly funded specialist domestic violence courts across the country?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, which is an astute one, and she recognises, as we all do, the importance of this area. It is of course this Government who have already put the Domestic Abuse Act on the statute book, so we are ahead of her party in prioritising this area, and that is a simple fact. The reality, I have to say, is that the CPS’s domestic abuse best practice framework seeks to address the withdrawal rates. She talks about the number of prosecutions, and of course prosecutions have gone down across the board because of the impact of the covid pandemic. However, we want to deliver a high-quality service to victims, and the work that is being done on the framework encourages more timely court listings to get these cases on more quickly and reduce victim attrition, which I know is something the Ministry of Justice and the whole criminal justice system are working very strongly on.

It is interesting that the right hon. and learned Gentleman says his party is ahead when it is Labour that has set out a green paper to tackle these issues head-on. What is even more worrying is that domestic abuse prosecutions now seem to be going the same way as rape prosecutions, which are at their lowest recorded level, and new figures show that 44% of rape victims give up before their trial even begins. Will the Attorney General adopt our fully drafted survivors support plan for rape victims and will he commit to backing Labour’s violence against women and girls green paper, or will he continue to sit on his hands and allow the continued systemic failing of the criminal justice system for women and girls in England and Wales?

I do not think it is accurate to refer to the criminal justice system as failing women and girls. It is a high focus for the criminal justice system, and there are a lot of people—thousands of people—working very hard, day in and day out, in the courts, the Crown Prosecution Service and police forces around this country, with a very high priority to focus on this area. It is this Government who have allocated another £76 million to support victims of domestic abuse, sexual violence and modern slavery, as well as vulnerable children. It is this Government who have put the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 on the statute book. It is this Government who are creating 20,000 more police officers, and who have already funded the Crown Prosecution Service to over £85 million—closer to £100 million. It is this Government who recognise that we have to do better. We have to do more, and I accept that. There is always more that can be done, and in such an important area, one can never sit back. We have received 180,000 responses, as I am sure the hon. Lady knows, following the tragic case of Sarah Everard, to the consultation that the Government set up, and we will be looking very closely at those responses.

According to the Centre for Women’s Justice, one woman every week for the last two years has reported domestic abuse by their police officer spouse or partner, and every woman it spoke to said that the police had failed to investigate their case. Given the severity of these statistics, how confident is the Attorney General that the correct processes are in place in the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure that complaints involving the police are investigated objectively?

Of course, the issue of the police is a matter for the Home Office, but I would say that I know the police are working very hard to prioritise and focus on these domestic abuse cases, and they do seek to achieve the very best possible results in all circumstances. There are tried and tested mechanisms for making complaints against the police, and clearly they are available to anyone who feels that a complaint would be appropriate and justified. We have worked very hard to produce the Domestic Abuse Act, which covers a number of areas that, as we have already rehearsed, will protect women and girls, and we will continue to do so.