Survivors of domestic abuse in the UK may be at risk of further harm, because details of court orders against their abusers have not been shared with police.
It’s a glaring knowledge gap in the Police National Database (PND), but CGI, the systems integration company that originally developed and now maintains the PND, has recently proposed a solution to bridge that gap. This proposal comes as the UK Government prepares to introduce a new landmark Domestic Abuse Bill, which it promises will:
“...further protect and support survivors, recognize the lifelong impact domestic abuse has on children and make sure agencies are responding effectively to domestic abuse.”
In the dark
So why might police still be in the dark when it comes to the details of domestic abuse survivors? The answer lies in the different routes taken by survivors to confront their perpetrators. In short, they must choose between either the civil courts or the criminal justice system.
For many, applying for a non-molestation order (NMO) through the civil courts is the preferred route. It can be a less distressing and protracted avenue to take, when compared to a trip through the criminal justice system, in which they’ll be reliant on the police to investigate and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to make a charging decision and prosecute the case in either the Crown or Magistrates’ court.
The criminal justice option can be traumatic. According to research conducted by charity Women’s Aid earlier this year, almost one in four (24%) of domestic abuse survivors who took this route said they had been cross-examined in court by their abusive ex-partner. More than six out of ten (61%) said they had been offered no special protection around court attendance, such as separate waiting rooms, different entry/exit times, screens or video links.
It’s no wonder then that many victims instead opt for a civil remedy. An NMO granted by the civil court system can last indefinitely and aims to prevent a partner or ex-partner from:
“...using of threatening to use abuse or engaging in intimidating, harassing or threatening behaviour in order to ensure the health, safety and well-being of family members.”
Breach of an NMO has been a criminal offence since 2007 and around 26,000 NMOs were issued last year. The trouble with NMOs is there is no centralized national record of these orders, in either paper or digital form. Victims themselves are responsible for holding a paper copy of the order and providing local police with a copy. In many cases, local police forces have no knowledge - let alone records - of NMOs that have been issued in their own area.
Time for change
This needs to change, says Nick Dale, vice president of business transformation for the UK justice sector at CGI. The current situation, whereby a victim must hold a paper copy of an injunction that is not shared across agencies, doesn’t follow them if they move areas and is not systematically available on police databases, means that the police are missing vital opportunities to keep victims of domestic abuse safe.
What CGI is proposing is an expansion of the PND that would enable it to automatically accept, manage and store details of all NMOs issued. This, the company claims, could be achieved without major IT upgrades or resourcing, because the PND already has in-built capability to serve as a central database for NMOs and other protective orders, yet it is not currently used for this purpose. If that were put right, NMOs could be viewed, downloaded and linked to current information and intelligence by the police and other authorized agencies, such as CAFCASS, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. Says Dale:
“Our message is that the Police National Database is already there and suitable for this purpose. It would need to have some tweaks to it, there would need to be some business change around automatic input of NMOs - but it would definitely be an improvement on what’s in place right now, right?”
“To my mind, this is not a massive project. You’re probably looking at anywhere between three and six months. We know the capability is already there, so we’d just need to collaborate with the courts, police and agencies on the business-change requirements and then work through the technical aspects of what needs to be done.”
It would be easy to dismiss this as a case of CGI simply touting for another project, were it not for the fact that the company has clearly done a great deal of upfront consultation with domestic abuse experts, the police and the courts. It has also outlined the results of these conversations in a pretty comprehensive report, written in partnership Crest Advisory, an independent consultancy that specializes in criminal justice and policing: Joining the Dots: Domestic Abuse, Civil and Criminal Justice and Technology.
On top of that, the CGI proposal has also won the backing of Katy Bourne, Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) for Sussex. As well as having a seat on Home Secretary Sajid Javid’s domestic abuse advisory group, Bourne also leads digital and technology policy for the 41 PCCs across England and Wales. She told me:
“My work as a PCC over the last six years has brought me into close contact with many domestic abuse survivors and I’ve seen first-hand the problems that legacy technology is creating when it comes to protecting them. It’s fundamentally unacceptable that the onus is being placed on victims of domestic abuse holding an NMO. It also strikes me that this system exposes them to more distress: every time they have to look at that piece of paper reminds them of what they’ve been through, when all they want to do is put it behind them and get on with their lives. It’s the twenty-first century and we simply have to adopt smarter processes.”
“Domestic abuse is a big, big problem and it’s not one that we’re going to eradicate overnight, but the CGI/Crest report and its recommendations strike me as both sensible and achievable, which is why we’d certainly like to see the PND being used more effectively for NMOs.”
This is an important issue - but we have to assume that CGI’s proposal is not the only possible route here. Cutbacks in police spending will no doubt play a part, too: the Institute for Fiscal Studies says that overall police budgets in England and Wales fell by 14% between 2010/11 and 2014/15, and while the government committed to protecting police force budgets in real terms, that’s in an environment characterized by rising costs for policing.
Some forces already use a phone app from the National Centre for Domestic Violence (NCDV) to check that organization’s database of non-molestation orders - but this only holds a fraction of those issued and its records show that in 2017, officers used the app to download just 2,000 orders.
What’s most important to recognize here, however, is that some of the worst domestic abuse cases continue to play out to tragic ends partly against a backdrop of inadequate information sharing when it comes to victims and perpetrators. Earlier this year, an Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) investigation into the events leading up to the murder of Anne-Marie Birch by her estranged husband in 2013 found that Kent Police had incorrectly logged some of the nine calls Mrs Birch had made to the police in the months leading up to her death. In particular, it highlighted a lack of awareness among some staff of NMOs. Mrs Birch had obtained an order against her husband less than seven weeks before her death. As Katy Bourne puts it:
“When you look at domestic homicide case reviews, you never, ever see a report that suggests that the problem was the police and agencies sharing too much information.”