Original Article: Keir Starmer, The Guardian | Jun 17, 2016
Domestic abuse is pernicious. It is also persistent. The statistics are always shocking: one in four women and one in six men suffer domestic abuse after the age of 16. Two women a week are killedby a partner or ex-partner. These figures have been with us a long time.
As director of public prosecutions from 2008 to 2013, I learned that as far the criminal justice response is concerned, to make progress you need a very firm grip on the numbers (10 years ago the Crown Prosecution Service did not even record the number of domestic abuse cases prosecuted each year); robust policies (an area where there has been real progress by the police and by prosecutors); and above all, a clear strategy and action plan (numbers and good policies do not deliver results; purposeful action does).
The criminal justice response to domestic abuse, albeit far from perfect, has now improved and so long as all concerned keep a keen focus, it is capable of further improvement. Where there is evidence of shortcomings, it should be seized upon with demands for swift improvement.
But the criminal justice response to domestic abuse is only one element of what should be a much better-coordinated response across the board. New frontiers need to be opened that take account of the lessons and experiences – many painful – of progress in the criminal justice system.
Not before time, we have come to appreciate that those suffering domestic abuse need a safe place to confide in someone who can offer support. That is why one of the key recommendations from the Victims Taskforce I worked on with Doreen Lawrence was that every police force area should have designated safe places for reporting domestic abuse, rather than relying on reporting at police stations.
The next hard lesson in criminal justice was that many assumptions about victims of domestic abuse simply do not hold water. Many victims do not report what has happened to them straight away, many find it difficult to catalogue their abuse in a neat chronological way capable of withstanding withering and unrelenting questioning in court, and many either return to or stay with the perpetrator. Learning these lessons required a fundamental rethink of how we assess credibility in our criminal justice system.
And then there is the lesson that those suffering domestic abuse need swift and effective support. The number one issue should always be safety. “Are you safe?” should be a question asked by every police officer and prosecutor dealing with a domestic abuse case. Those lessons now need to be taken to the world of work – this is the next frontier.
For some people, work is the only safe haven from abuse. So all employers in businesses big and small, whether in the public or private sector, should be encouraged to create safe spaces at work where staff suffering domestic abuse can talk to an appropriately qualified person who can provide advice and offer support.
This should be complemented by staff training in all aspects of domestic abuse. Every line manager needs to be equipped to deal confidentially with signs of domestic abuse. Just as there is now widespread health and safety training, there should be domestic abuse training. And, learning the lessons from the criminal justice sphere, that training should address head-on the myths and stereotypes that bedevilled the credibility assessment by police and prosecutors for so many years.
The police and crime commissioner for Northumbria, Vera Baird, who has led the way in workplace domestic abuse policies, has encouraged employers to appoint abuse champions – trained staff who are able to see the signs of possible abuse and equipped to deal with any disclosures calmly, pointing colleagues towards abuse outreach workers or other sources of advice and support. There are now 577 champions supporting colleagues in 216 workplaces across the Northumbria area.
The work Vera is doing in the north-east, supported by commissioners from Durham and Cleveland, now needs to be replicated across the country. And as this next frontier is tackled, the lessons learned in criminal justice should be uppermost in our mind: to make a real difference you need reliable data, robust policies, a clear strategy and an effective action in place with built-in transparency and oversight. You also need the will to make a difference.