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  • Writer's pictureJames Rowlands

Consulting for Reform: The Definition and Naming of Domestic Homicide Reviews

First posted on the 28th July 2023 on the University of Sussex's School of Law, Politics and Sociology's research blog, LaPSe of Reason.


This post is by Dr James Rowlands (a researcher who recently completed a PhD in Gender Studies at the Department of Sociology and Criminology at Sussex, and who will be taking up a post as a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Westminster from September). The post summarises and responds to the UK Government’s consultation about the legislation for and naming of Domestic Homicide Reviews (DHRs). The post draws on a consultation submission prepared by James with Dr Elizabeth Cook (Senior Lecturer at the Violence and Society Centre at City, University of London), Demelza Luna Reaver (a PhD candidate at University College London), and Sally McManus (Senior Lecturer in Health Sciences and Deputy Director of the VISION [Violence, Health and Society] UKRI Consortium at City, University of London). Cook, Luna Reaver and McManus are members of the VISION Consortium.


Introduction


Between June and the 11th August 2023, the UK Government is running a consultation about the legislation underpinning DHRs, as well as their naming. Routinely undertaken in England and Wales since 2011, DHRs are a type of statutory review. DHRs can be conducted into domestic homicides, including killings involving former or current intimate partners and family members, and – since 2016 – also into domestic abuse-related deaths by suicide. The aim of DHRs is to build a picture of what happened when someone has been killed or died by suicide and then try to learn from it. In doing so, the hope is that any learning can be used to improve responses to domestic abuse and so, potentially, reduce domestic abuse-related deaths in the future. For a summary of DHRs as a system, process, and product, including who is involved, you can read a previous LaPSe of Reason blog.


Background


There are a number of challenges with DHRs, which is one of the reasons that the UK Government announced its intention for a programme of DHR reform in the 2022 Domestic Abuse Action Plan. These plans included commitments to update the Statutory Guidance governing DHRs, introduce training for the Independent Chairs that lead them, and improve governance arrangement (including in terms of quality assurance, as well as providing an oversight role for the Domestic Abuse Commissioner for England and Wales).


The consultation responds to two aspects of DHR reform:


1. First, the definition of a ‘domestic homicide’. The original legislation that introduced DHRs – the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 – set out that they should be undertaken where


the death of a person aged 16 or over has, or appears to have, resulted from violence, abuse or neglect by (a) a person to whom he was related or with whom he was or had been in an intimate personal relationship, or (b)a member of the same household as himself.

In other words, DHRs could be conducted into deaths where the (alleged) perpetrator was a former or current intimate partner, family member, or lodger or flatmate. Since then, the Domestic Abuse (DA) Act 2021 has been passed, creating a statutory definition of domestic abuse, whereby two individuals are ‘personally connected’ and there is behaviour that could be considered ‘abusive’.


The consultation addresses the question of which killings or deaths, with respect of the new definition of domestic abuse, should be in scope, asking: ‘Are you in favour of updating DHR legislation so that a DHR is considered for all deaths that have or appear to have been the result of domestic abuse, as domestic abuse is defined in the DA Act 2021[…]?’


2. Second, deaths by suicide have been reviewable since a change to the Statutory Guidance in 2016, specifically ‘where a victim took their own life… and the circumstances give rise to concern’ (p. 8).

There are a range of challenges when reviewing domestic abuse-related deaths, including the name used to describe these reviews. In summary, calling a review into a death by suicide a ‘DHR’ is misleading, as well as potentially distressing, particularly for the families and friends affected.


The consultation therefore addresses the question of how to name reviews, asking: ‘The name “Domestic Homicide Review” can be misleading when the fatality in the review has not been ruled a homicide (e.g suicides and unexplained deaths). […] Are you in favour of renaming “Domestic Homicide Reviews”?’


The remainder of this blog summarises the submission I prepared with Cook, Luna Reaver, and McManus to the consultation, explaining our support for updating the definition (but with proposals for changes to better capture underlying principles) and our views on the best way to name these reviews.


Updating DHR legislation


While supporting aligning the statutory basis for DHRs with the definition of domestic abuse in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, we argued that the changes to the legislation should go further. Specifically, we recommended that the legislation should be amended to be clear that deaths should be considered for review where they are ‘caused by, related to, or somehow traceable to’ domestic abuse. This would set out an underlying principle that could inform decisions about the cases in scope, capturing both homicides (where direct attribution can be made with respect to the actions of the perpetrator) and other types of death, including domestic abuse-related deaths by suicide (where direct attribution may not be possible, with domestic abuse being one of multiple contributory factors).


In addition, such an amendment would also make it clear that deaths which fall into the definition of domestic abuse as defined in the DA Act 2021 should be reviewed (such as those involving former or current intimate partners or family members) and ensure sufficient flexibility to review cases that may not directly do so. Such cases include:


1. Domestic abuse-related deaths occurring outside of the context of normative family and intimate relationships. That include dating relationships (e.g., between young people); relationships where status may be unclear or not defined, (e.g., some Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans+ [LGBT+] people may not disclose their relationship to families, friends, or the wider community); or deaths that occur in the context of kinship (e.g., extended familial networks).


2. The death of corollary victims, where someone is killed in the context of domestic abuse but is neither a former/current intimate partner or family member. This could include, for example, a perpetrator killing a victim’s new partner.


The consultation suggests excluding consideration of killings and/or deaths associated with non-intimate/familial household members, i.e., a lodger or flatmate, something we did not support. We recommended instead that these relationships continue to be included, because domestic spaces, and the relationships within them, can be linked to violence and abuse.


Linked to any revision of the legislation, we also recommended that when the Statutory Guidance is revised, this should:

  • Be clearer about commissioning decision-making, including what deaths are in scope, the identification, referral, and decision-making process, the requirements with respect to consultation (notably, with specialist domestic abuse services, as well as families), and reporting (including transparency about the notifications received and decisions made).

  • Include, where a decision not to review is made, a positive requirement for the responsible Community Safety Partnership (CSP) to consider referral to another appropriate statutory review.

  • Address the particular operational considerations that arise because of the specific circumstances being considered.

Finally, we did not make any recommendations in response to the DA Act 2021’s inclusion of children as victims but pointed to a submission by the Domestic Abuse Commissioner for England and Wales in this respect.


Renaming ‘Domestic Homicide Reviews’


While supporting the proposal to rename DHRs, we did not agree that the term ‘Domestic Abuse Fatality Review’ would be suitable for describing reviews, either with respect to homicide or other deaths, including domestic abuse-related deaths by suicide. Instead, we recommended referring to these reviews collectively as ‘Domestic Homicide or Abuse-Related Death Reviews’ to reflect the range of deaths in scope.


For domestic homicides, we argued that the term ‘Domestic Homicide Review’ should be retained because homicide conveys the severity of these killings, including their impact and the actions of a perpetrator. In contrast, ‘fatality’ disguises the significance of these events.


Meanwhile, for domestic abuse-related deaths by suicide, we argued that term ‘Domestic Abuse-Related Death Review’ should be used. That is for several reasons, including because ‘fatality’ is:


1. Attributive, yet it is difficult to attribute direct causality in these cases. As a result, the term ‘fatality’ is potentially inaccurate and confusing.


2. Not usually used in either practice or policy with respect to suicide, with ‘death by suicide’ or some similar description being common terminology. For example, The ‘National Confidential Enquiry into Suicide and Safety in Mental Health’ primarily refers to ‘deaths by suicide’ or ‘suicide deaths’.


Finally, for other deaths, such as in relation to deaths by neglect, we also highlighted how using ‘fatality’ would be inappropriate too, as well as being inconsistent with the terminology used by coroners who investigate deaths by suicide and a wide range of suspicious death.


Instead, we recommended referring to these reviews as ‘Domestic Homicide or Abuse-Related Death Reviews’ to reflect the range of deaths in scope, as illustrated in Figure 1 below.


Figure 1: Range of deaths in scope of 'Domestic Homicide or Abuse-Related Death Reviews'


Linked to any revision of the legislation, we also recommended that when the Statutory Guidance is revised, Statutory Guidance should be revised to be clearer about the naming of these reviews and decision making in individual cases.


Conclusion


DHRs are complex, system, process, and product. While the questions considered by the consultation will not address all the challenges DHRs face, defining what killings or deaths are in scope, as well as the name given to these reviews, are critical building blocks. Getting scope right is important in terms of enabling the recognition and response to all domestic abuse-related deaths, while using appropriate and understandable terminology helps make these reviews explicable.


You can access our full consultation response here.


If you would like to respond to the consultation, further information, as well as guidance on how to submit a response, is available here.

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