Using data to better understand the hidden crime of domestic abuse

Criminal justice data shows about 60,000 convictions per year, while public surveys reveal 2.4 million adults experience domestic abuse. The ONS tells PublicTechnology how it has brought together information from a range of sources to help policy makers and support services

During the year to the end of March 2019, the police across England and Wales recorded a total of 746,216 domestic abuse-related crimes.

This number is 24% higher than the prior year, and the Office for National Statistics says the increase “may reflect improved recording by the police and increased reporting by victims”.

Even with such improvements, the figure equates to less than one in three of the 2.4 million adults – including 1.6 million women and 786,000 men – who suffered domestic abuse during the same period, according to the most recent publication of the ONS’s annual Crime Survey for England and Wales. This represents 5.7% of the adult population.

During the 2018/19 year, 32 arrests were made for every 100 domestic abuse-related crimes reported. Of these 214,965 arrests, fewer than half – 98,740 – were referred to the Crown Prosecution Service for a charging decision.

The CPS chose to pursue a charge in about three quarters of those cases, and about three quarters of those charges ended in conviction.

This means that something in the region of 56,000 people were convicted of perpetrating domestic abuse during the year in question.

In the 12-month period covered by the ONS crime survey, 43 times as many adults reported experiencing abuse.

It is no wonder that Women’s Aid, one of the UK’s foremost charities dedicated to helping survivors of domestic abuse, describes it as “a largely hidden crime”.

For those seeking to support victims at a local, regional or national level – including policymakers, charities, and front-line public-services providers – there is a lot of information all the untold stories that could enable them to better understand how to do so.

This is why, since the 2015/16 year, the ONS has sought to enrich the quality and breadth of the data on domestic abuse that it collates and publishes, to allow people to access a more comprehensive range of information in one place.

Helen Ross, domestic abuse lead at the ONS’s centre for crime and justice, tells PublicTechnology: “We have always published data on domestic abuse – both from the police-recorded data and the crime survey. But about five years ago we saw there was a gap, and we started bringing data together from the criminal justice system and charities – so users can find everything they need.”

Those users include policymakers – many of whom are based in the Home Office – as well as other public sector professionals and the media. Perhaps most significant of all are the charities and third-sector providers of domestic-abuse support services that both contribute data and use the findings to support their work.

Charities providing data to the ONS include Women’s Aid, Refuge, the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, Victim Support, the ManKind Initiative and SafeLives.

The data is also used by the ONS and others government in measuring the UK’s performance against the 17 Sustainable Development Goals set out by the United Nations. 

Approximate number of people convicted for a domestic abuse-related crime during the year for which the most recent police data is available

Year in which controlling or coercive behaviour offence was created – the first specifically addressing domestic abuse was created 

Proportion of the adults in England and Wales – including 7.5% of women and 3.8% of men – that reported experiencing domestic abuse in the year to March 2019, equating to 2.4 million people

Number of refuge bed spaces available in England and Wales

Number of available beds per 1,000 victims in Yorkshire and the Humber, compared with about 4.5 in London and the North East

The fifth goal on the UN’s list is for countries to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”; one of the key indicators of whether progress is being made is the proportion of women that have been subjected to “physical, sexual or psychological violence by a current or former intimate partner in the previous 12 months”.

Released each November, the ONS’s annual overview of domestic abuse combines data from charities with information from police services, central government departments, and the statistics agency’s own survey. 

The intent is to bring together information that can help elucidate not just prevalence and conviction rates, but the experiences of victims and perpetrators, and how they are treated by the criminal justice system and support services.

Ross says: “Police data can only provide a partial picture – it is affected by how willing people are to report crime, which is why it’s important to present the crime survey data alongside as it provides reliable estimates of prevalence which are unaffected by changes in police activity or the propensity of victims to report to the police. But that is not the whole story – do those victims get justice, and do they get support?”

One of the problems of using police data to assess incidence of domestic abuse is that, essentially, there is no such crime – nor even a broad category of offence.

On the list of crime type definitions provided by the Metropolitan Police Service, ‘domestic crime’ is listed as one of the possible offences that form the ‘Additional Crime Types’ that are not otherwise defined.

The offences that constitute the reported number of domestic abuse-related crimes will typically be recorded as offences of ‘violence against the person’, a category that includes assault, harassment, and bodily harm, or ‘sexual offences’, such as rape or indecent assault.

Since 2015, an offence of ‘controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship’ – which, according to the government, was introduced to punish those whose offence “stops short of serious physical violence, but amounts to extreme psychological and emotional abuse” –  has been a crime with a penalty of five years imprisonment and a fine.

Ross says that, in the first few years after an offence is introduced, there are often year-on-year increases that may be attributed to growing understanding and use of the new law, rather than a rise in instances of the offence itself or increased reporting.

Within the next year or two, the ability to collate data on domestic abuse as a criminal offence will be improved – and complicated – by the government’s Domestic Abuse Bill that is currently working its way through the various reading and debate stages of the parliamentary process.

If and when it becomes law, the bill – the creation and drafting of which was informed by the ONS’s domestic abuse data – aims to “create a statutory definition of domestic abuse” that encompasses physical, sexual, emotional, mental, and financial abuse. The bill also proposes the introduction of new protection notices, a duty for local authorities to provide refuge for victims and their children, increased monitoring of convicted abusers, and the introduction of a new domestic abuse commissioner.

The ONS’s most recent crime survey, meanwhile, finds that an estimated 7.5% of women and 3.8% of men across England and Wales experienced domestic abuse in the year ending March 2019.

The prevalence rate was highest among women aged between 20 and 24, and abuse was more likely to have been suffered by those who were separated or divorced from their partner.

According to the most recent data on partner abuse – which covers the year to March 2018 – female victims experienced higher levels of sexual abuse, rape, and non-physical abuse than male victims, while male victims suffered violence with higher levels of physical force, the survey found.

“Police data can only provide a partial picture; it’s important to present the crime survey data alongside as it provides reliable estimates of prevalence. But that is not the whole story – do those victims get justice, and do they get support?”
Hele Ross,ONS

About a quarter of all victims of partner abuse sustained a physical injury.

According to the ONS: “There was a significant decrease in the proportion of female victims reporting partner abuse to the police… compared with the year ending March 2015 – the last time this was asked about in the Crime Survey for England and Wales.”

Data provided by charities finds that there were 302 providers of refuge services across England and Wales in 2018, offering a total of 4,092 bed spaces.

But availability varied significantly by region; in London and the North East, there were a little more than 4.5 refuge beds available for every 1,000 female victims of abuse. In the South West and Yorkshire and the Humber, meanwhile, the figure stands at only about two per 1,000.

Over the last five years, bringing all the above data, and much more, together in one place has benefited the other government agencies and third-sector partners with which the ONS has been able to share its findings, Ross says.

“When we talk to policy teams, they find it really powerful,” Ross says. “We are also working very closely with the charities, and since we started this project a few years ago, we are working with more and including more data each year  – and we hope this continues in the future.”


Click here to view the ONS’s latest figures on domestic abuse


Click on the links below to find out more about each of the charities


Sam Trendall

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