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  • James Rowlands

At last it's here: the consultation response and draft Domestic Abuse Bill

Well, it’s finally here. After a long wait, the UK Government has published its consultation response and draft Domestic Abuse Bill.

There’s a fair bit of good news. A Domestic Abuse Commissioner. A statutory definition of domestic violence and abuse, which will include economic abuse (in relation to that, surely Surviving Economic Abuse must be in the running for a ‘big impact by new small charity’ award?). An end to direct cross examination by perpetrators in Family Court. Recognition, to a greater or lesser extent, of the needs of particular communities (not least victims and survivors with insecure immigration status, people from LGB and T communities, older people and people with disabilities). There is also a welcome focus on the need to improve training for staff in the public sector, as well as a commitment to publish a Position Statement regarding male victims.  

But many reading the document may well feel that there's a lot missing and / or a lack of detail in critical areas. As others will no doubt be writing or talking about these issues in the round, I won’t get into them any further. Suffice to say, for me, the question of sustainable provision runs through the document and, as ever, seems unanswered. And given the vision was meant to be transformative, it feels a lot like a list which is heavily weighted towards criminal justice responses. 

But, as ever, my focus is on Domestic Homicide Reviews (DHRs). These are addressed at the end of the document, on page 81. 

Boiling down an already short summary, it looks like two main themes about DHRs emerged in the consultation. The first is about learning. People want more training and awareness about the learning from DHRs, as well as having them published in an accessible place. The second is about delivery. There are calls for inspection or monitoring of action plans, as well as further consideration of the role of local partnerships and Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs).  

In response the government has set out a number of commitments. So, what do they entail? Here’s my response to each of those commitments: 

"Creating a public, searchable repository of DHRs".

About time. But this needs to be well thought through. A repository needs to be more than a list of hyperlinks.

Instead, a repository should be a resource that people can use. Ideally, it would be the front door to a wider effort to bring together the learning from DHRs locally, regionally and nationally. It’s a shame to see there isn’t a clear vision about what a repository would be like. 

"Strengthening the DHR statutory guidance to ensure that published reviews remain publicly accessible for longer". 

Good. It’s still too hard, and sometimes impossible, to find published DHRs. Some Community Safety Partnerships (CSPs) simply don’t seem to have thought about how to share the learning from published DHRs, which get lost somewhere on their website. More worryingly, others only publish DHRs for a short space of time before taking them back down or don’t publish them at all.

But there is more to think on here.  What does ‘publicly accessible for longer’ mean? How long is long enough? I can think of some arguments in favour of removing a DHR after a certain period of time, but that certainly shouldn’t happen before the learning has been pulled out and any actions completed. Families should also have a say in that decision. But surely it's also about more than making published reviews accessible. As I suggested above, learning from DHRs needs to be pulled together more frequently. 

"Working with the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, when appointed, to look at how learning is being implemented both locally and nationally".

Good again! But the question is, how this will happen? Of course, local recommendations need to be implemented. So more robust oversight is welcome, because the quality and implementation of action plans varies widely. But the real impact of this will only come if the Domestic Abuse Commissioner has the resources to bring together learning from across areas, as I described above. Only then will it be possible to really see the common themes across reviews and use these to drive forward system change.  They also need to have the resources to engage properly with agencies (locally and nationally) and government departments, to be sure that recommendations are actually implemented. That will take time and expertise, and again, means ensuring the Domestic Abuse Commissioner has the resources to take an active role, rather than simply receiving published DHRs. 

Another gap here, and I hope this is taken up, is how quality assurance is working. The Home Office and the Quality Assurance Panel are doing their best, but the time it takes to get DHRs signed off and then published is simply too long. There needs to be a long hard look at the best way to quality assure DHRs. That should include ensuring that quality assurance happens promptly but is also robust. In the best cases, quality assurance offers additional scrutiny and constructive challenge as part of a process of continuous improvement. But sometimes, things cannot be easily improved. However quality assurance is undertaken in future, it needs to be able to address poor practice. That includes identifying repeat offenders, whether that's local areas who keep delivering, or the Independent Chairs who keep writing, DHRs that don't meet the grade. 

"Working across government to ensure that national recommendations from DHRs are shared and acted upon".

A good starter for ten would be to bring all the national recommendations together and publish them, setting out how they will be addressed and if they won't be, why not. That could be as an addendum to the Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy and its associated action plan. Local areas will take the lead from national government. That means national government needs to walk the talk when it comes to DHRs. 

"Share learning from the pilot taking place in Wales which brings together DHRs and Adult Practice Reviews into a single review process".

There are already some interesting findings coming out of Wales, including a report by Professor Amanda Robinson and her colleagues which is accessible here. They looked at learning from a range of different types of reviews (including DHRs, as well as Adult Practice Reviews and Mental Health Homicide Reviews). 

"Funding advocacy services to ensure that families are supported to contribute towards DHRs".

This is great news. When I chair a Domestic Homicide Review, I want to do the best job I can by families. That’s because the involvement of family (and friends) can bring a vital perspective to a DHR, which will be better for that input. But I cannot be an advocate for a family at the same time as being a chair. So, ensuring families can have access to specialist support is welcome. 

Just one final thought. In the introduction to the section on DHRs, the document says this: ‘Domestic Homicide Reviews (DHRs) exist so that agencies and community organisations can learn from shortcomings and improve their future response to domestic abuse’ (p.81).

For me, that’s a worrying contraction of the purpose of a DHR as set out in the Statutory Guidance (p. 6). DHRs shouldn’t ever just be about agency responses. Because if that happens, the remit and focus of DHRs risks becoming ever narrower. Instead DHRs should be expansive. They should be ambitious and seek to really understand a victim's perspective. That means taking seriously the other purposes of DHRs as set out in the Statutory Guidance, including earlier identification, developing the understanding of domestic violence and abuse, and also highlighting good practice. 

I hope that contraction was a slip of the editorial pen. That’s because I believe DHRs are a tragic but necessary tool. If we do DHRs well, they can make a difference to the response to domestic violence and abuse. Most importantly, DHRs are about someone who has died as a result of domestic violence and abuse. By any reckoning, the least we can do is do them well.  

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