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  • Writer's pictureJames Rowlands

What is 'independence' anyway?

It’s been a long while since I last wrote a blog, but a conversation with a colleague has made me think about how we understand the independence of ‘independent chairs’ in domestic homicide reviews. So, here are some thoughts.

The statutory guidance requires an 'independence statement', setting out the chair’s career history, relevant experience, and independence. It also says the chair should not be ‘directly associated’ with any of the agencies involved in the domestic homicide review. In effect, that means the chair should be able to demonstrate their independence from the commissioning community safety partnership and the agencies involved. The statutory guidance though does not rule a connection out entirely; it says that if there was a previous connection the independence statement should make it clear ‘how much time has elapsed since the person left that agency’.

So, like lots to do with domestic homicide review, the statutory guidance gives some pointers but is far from comprehensive. My frustration, from my practice and research, is that people – not least chairs and community safety partnerships - clearly have very different understandings of what independence mean. I’m not going to detail examples here, but I am talking about domestic homicide reviews where the ‘independent’ chair had clear and often long-established links to the local authority area where the domestic homicide review was commissioned. One common example I have seen is where the chair is a retired police officer who had worked in the local police force.

Such examples raise questions for me. To follow these questions though, how then could we think about independence?

Well, first, maybe we should be thinking about why independence is important. Oddly enough, that’s not set out explicitly in the statutory guidance. For me, there are two ways of thinking about independence.

First, what does independence bring? Simply put, an independent chair is a new set of eyes. They can bring a different perspective and so, ideally, ask questions and enable discussion about things that might otherwise be taken for granted or left unsaid. That’s important because, with the best will in the world, if people routinely work together, as many on the review panel will do, sometimes it is hard to see the wood for the trees or something may be blocking the view (not least the sometimes-challenging side effects of multi-agency working).

Second, having an independent chair sends a message. It is one way to demonstrate that a domestic homicide review is a serious endeavour, including to the family and other members of someone’s testimonial network. That means everyone involved knows that the domestic homicide review will follow the evidence and, where necessary, challenge the status quo, with the chair operating as an honest broker if needed.

But even if we know what we think independence is, how do we operationalise it? As I have already suggested, some evidently have different understandings of what independence is (although I should also say that many domestic homicide reviews are clearly led by independent chairs, to the credit of the commissioning community safety partnership). So, let’s return to the statutory guidance. Its requirements about independence are basically about proximity in space and time.

By space, when it says the chair should not be ‘directly associated’, it means they should not have worked in the area. The question is, what does ‘area’ mean here? Is it the local authority that is commissioning the domestic homicide review? Or should we take ‘area’ to be broader, for example, concerning the police force area or region?

The statutory guidance also talks about time. By allowing the chair to have worked for an agency previously, as long as they say how much ‘time has elapsed since the person left that agency’, the statutory guidance introduces wriggle room. But what does this mean? How much time should have passed?

So, space and time are the key issues. And of course, it’s hard to set out a steadfast rule because there is not a simple answer to the questions I have posed. For example, people move jobs, and many of us have connections to different agencies and areas.

Ultimately then independence is a judgement call. For community safety partnerships, it may be a fairly pragmatic one, but it is still important. What steps are they taking to interrogate what independence means?

For chairs, I think this is more than a pragmatic question: it’s a question of professional reflection and ethics. My view, for what it’s worth, is that I don’t think a chair should be leading a domestic homicide review if they worked directly in the area previously, particularly if they had any kind of seniority there. To return to my previous example, it seems problematic to me that a retired police officer could chair a domestic homicide reviews in the force where they worked. But that applies to those of us who haven’t been police officers too. So, I won’t work on domestic homicide reviews in Sussex because I had a commissioning post there. While I left three years ago, and things have moved on, it still feels too close to home.

It's also a question of not only looking back to a chair's previous roles, but also looking forward. Should a chair undertake multiple reviews in the same area? My answer, echoing the above, is no because over time they themselves become a known entity. For my part, I have made the decision that I won't chair for the same local authority more than twice.

Clearly, these are decisions I have made for myself and there isn't a simple or single answer to these questions. The key thing is we have the discussion and I hope this blog may help start or continue that conversation.

Of course, we can also think about independence in other ways. I haven’t talked about who is chairing domestic homicide reviews – either in terms of professional history or personal characteristics like gender – and what this might mean. We also need to think about independence beyond the chair, including for the review panel when an agency had contact with a victim, perpetrator or any children (here, the statutory guidance requires ‘independence from the line management of the case’). But perhaps these are issues for a blog another time…

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