In the popular imagination, a new year brings the possibility of renewal. For Domestic Homicide Reviews (DHRs), that sense of potential is well founded: 2024 is the year that the UK Government’s ambitions for DHR reform – as set out in the Tackling Domestic Abuse Action Plan – will come to fruition with a planned consultation on revised statutory guidance.
Why is this important? DHRs were introduced in 2011, and the statutory guidance is an integral part of the framework for running DHRs (which, in all likelihood, will soon become known as ‘Domestic Abuse Related Death Reviews’). That guidance ranges from setting out how to identify abuse-related deaths, commissioning a review, appointing an independent chair, building a review panel, involving testimonial networks (notably family), conducting the review itself, disseminating findings, and delivering an action plan.
However, the last revisions to the statutory guidance were in 2016. Since then, changes to practice and policy have accumulated. Bringing the statutory guidance up to date (for example, to better reflect the role of Police and Crime Commissioners, as well as the passage of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021) is welcome in its own right.
But revisions to the statutory guidance aren’t just a technical issue. I passionately believe in the potential of review, not least in terms of what they can tell us about domestic abuse-related deaths and how they can help us improve practices, policies and systems (as illustrated by the recent thematic reports published by the Office of the Domestic Abuse Commissioner and Manchester Metropolitan University). Among other things, reviews can also be a way to tell a victim’s story. But despite DHRs’ potential, there have been enduring challenges and weaknesses since their introduction. So, revised statutory guidance is an opportunity to work through and address assorted issues. These include:
Developing the requirements around the skills, knowledge, or experience of independent chairs (due to be helped too by the rollout of mandatory training) but also addressing what we expect of review panellists and the support we provide to participants generally.
Providing more direction around different aspects of the review process, including, for example, what might be different for reviews into domestic abuse-related deaths by suicide.
Expanding on existing best practices around family involvement to reflect what we have learnt since 2016, but also thinking further about when and how to involve other testimonial networks (like friends, neighbours, colleagues, and the wider community), as well as when and how to engage with perpetrators and those who knew them safely.
Doing more to ensure the rigour of learning and recommendations, not least in terms of embedding diversity and equality, and making sure reviews take the broadest possible perspective by focusing on individuals while also considering policy and systems.
However, the statutory guidance is only part of the framework for review. What’s equally important is the expectations of individual Community Safety Partnerships (CSPs) (who are responsible for individual reviews) and the Home Office (given its national role in terms of oversight of reviews as a system but also the work of the DHR Quality Assurance (QA) Panel).
For CSPs, we need to address the differences in the robustness of their delivery of individual reviews, from how independent chairs are appointed to the steps taken to ensure recommendations are turned into action and that learning is consistently disseminated (simply publishing a DHR report is not enough).
For the Home Office, I’ve written extensively on the challenges and weaknesses of the review system, as have others: one cause of this has been the lack of consistent national oversight. Delivering on the wider commitments for reform in the Tackling Domestic Abuse Action Plan will go a long way to address this, not least the renaming of DHRs and the rollout of independent chair’s training (as noted above), the new DHR Library, and also the introduction of a National Domestic Homicide and Suicide Oversight Mechanism led by the Domestic Abuse Commissioner.
But the statutory guidance will remain a key driver, and the underlying issue is how the Home Office can implement and maintain refreshed statutory guidance to ensure consistently good quality reviews that honour victims, are well conducted (including good outcomes for families), and generate both learning and meaningful change.
We also need to look again at the design of other aspects of national oversight. For example, quality assurance needs to be transformed; despite the hard work of those involved, it takes too long, there is a lack of transparency, and the outcomes are unclear. These pose challenges to legitimacy. One straightforward option might be, for example, to flip the process and provide reader’s reports at the finalisation stage, giving independent chairs and the review panels a chance to consider feedback sooner.
Lastly, we also need more extensive discussions. How do we ensure sufficient capacity and capability to enable the DHR system to function, with this an issue for individual CSPs (particularly regarding funding and having domestic abuse leads who can help deliver reviews) and the Home Office and the QA Panel?
Taking these different perspectives together, getting the revised statutory guidance right is essential. So, as we approach the planned consultation – and as I write, we are awaiting news of the timetable, although it is likely to take place early this year – this is a time for reflection as a precursor to renewal.
That reflection must be based on honest accounting, including what we know works and doesn’t work well, our part in that, and what we want to be different.
But there is also a broader question we should ask as part of any reflection. One of the paradoxes of DHRs is that they are an exercise in hope, even though they come after tragedy when all may seem hopeless (to a family coping with a loss, but also potentially for professionals, researchers, and activists too when faced with what can feel like another death that has not been prevented). That’s because, in coming together and taking part in deliberative enquiry as part of a review, a hope for change drives our search for lessons and recommendations. So, ultimately, the question – for activists, family and the broader community, professionals and policymakers, and researchers – is what kind of review system do we want to see, and how do we make that happen?