Whilst tapping away at the keyboard yesterday writing about the Justin Lee Collins case and the issue of domestic abuse, I reached a certain point in the article where I suggested that one reason domestic abuse is under-reported is because victims are unfamiliar with the police and the justice system.
No sooner had I capped the suggestion off with a full stop, I thought the following – might it be helpful to look at the likely steps taken after a report of domestic abuse is made to ourselves?
I think it would and so what follows is a brief overview of what you might expect to happen after making such a report.
It can only be a general guide as each investigation is tailored to individual circumstances and outside the West Midlands, different forces will have different procedures but still, hopefully it’ll help clarify what us police will be looking to do and why.
In the first instance we’ll be looking to gather as much evidence as we’re able. Usually this will mean taking a statement which is simply a written account of what’s been happening.
Sometimes rather than taking a statement we’ll instead sit down at a police station and conduct a video interview – the result is the same as taking a written statement but rather than ending up with an account on a page, we’ll have it on a DVD.
Alongside the evidence from the statement, we’ll look to gather as much supporting evidence as we can.
If it’s a recent incident we may look to do some house to house enquiries, check CCTV, and with the victim’s permission possibly approach friends and family to see if they can provide statements too.
If appropriate we may also look to gather any medical evidence we can, again to help build up a case and strengthen the chances of a successful prosecution.
Inquiries such as these are carried out in a sensitive manner and with both the consent and understanding of the person making the report. The officers attending will happily answer any questions – building up the case is a process designed with the victim in mind and should take place at a pace they’re comfortable with.
An important part of the role played by the attending officers in the early stages will be making a referral to our Public Protection Unit (PPU) – a team of detectives who specialise in domestic and sexual abuse investigation.
On receiving a summary of a domestic abuse report, a member of the PPU will likely contact the victim by a pre-arranged method and can offer further support, perhaps also involving partner domestic abuse agencies who too are there to help victims in anyway they can.
A particular concern of the PPU will be the safety of the victim and so they can discuss safeguarding options as appropriate including the fitting of bleep alarms, relocation and a range of other possibilities.
Once the available evidence has been gathered, officers will then look to make an arrest, although this can happen at an earlier stage if it’s thought that there’s an immediate risk.
I’ve written before about the custody procedure but can sum it up by saying that just as taking statements or gathering forensics evidence, it’s another important part of the investigation.
If necessary forensics samples can be taken, if not when the officers are ready they’ll sit down and interview the suspect to get his or her account of what is alleged to have happened. The evidence will be put to the suspect and their responses recorded on tape.
With an account obtained from the suspect, the next stage is probably going to be for the officers to consult the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) who will evaluate the available evidence and decide what is to happen with the case.
The CPS are responsible for making charging decisions in the majority of domestic abuse cases and if they feel that the evidence is strong enough, they can authorise us to charge the suspect. This means they’ll be required to attend court and answer the charge.
Once a suspect has been charged, we then have to consider whether we are going to keep the suspect in custody until the court case (to ‘remand’ them), or to bail them, releasing them from the cells under the requirement that they attend court as instructed.
Past history, risk of further incidents and the severity of the report all will affect the choice as to whether to remand or bail but should a suspect be bailed, conditions will be applied meaning that the suspect has to comply with certain rules that we’ve set.
Common bail conditions include having no contact with the victim and staying at a certain address etc. If these are breached, a suspect can expect to be promptly rearrested.
Either way the officers investigating the report will keep you updated and you should be provided with a reference that you’ll be able to phone the non-emergency number, 101, and quote should you need anything.
The first hearing will be at Magistrates’ Court and usually happens within two weeks or so of being charged. The suspect is asked to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty, if they plead guilty they will be sentenced whilst if they deny the charge the court will probably reconvene at a later point for a full trial.
Out of the whole process of making a domestic abuse report, it’s the court process that is probably the most daunting but it’s important to remember that the courts offer victims all the support they are able to so that the process is as easy as it can be.
Charities such as Victim Support will update victims throughout the case and offer trips to the courts to help people familiarise themselves. The courts themselves likewise can offer a series of ‘special measures’ to make it easier to give evidence, be it having screens in the court so that the defendant is hidden or supplying testimony over a video link.
As I stated, the above can only really be a rough guide but suggests some of the directions in which a domestic abuse report can go once it is received by ourselves.
It’s also worth a reminder that whilst it’s possible that a report will go as far as court, this isn’t a given outcome and much depends on whether the CPS believe the evidence is strong enough to give a reasonable chance of a successful prosecution.
The best advice I can give is that should you or someone you know be thinking of confronting a domestic abuse problem and are unsure about anything, ask us or one of our partner agencies as we’ll be more than happy to help.
Finding the courage to make a domestic abuse report is one of the hardest things that some people will ever have to do – hard it may be, but confusing it shouldn’t be.