Unfair and Unjust: How Women Subjected to Domestic Abuse and Violence are Being Criminalised

A new report from the Centre for Women’s Justice has found that victims of male violence are being unjustly criminalised in relation to offences arising from their experience of abuse.

The report exposes how victims of domestic abuse and violence are often unfairly arrested, prosecuted and convicted when they use force against their abuser in self-defence, where they are coerced by their abuser into offending, or where they offend under duress of circumstance.

The Centre for Women’s Justice reports worrying links between women subjected to domestic abuse and criminalisation.

For instance:

  • 63% of girls and young women (16–24) serving sentences in the community have experienced rape or domestic abuse in an intimate partner relationship.
  • At least 57% of women in prison and under community supervision are victims of domestic abuse. The true figure is likely to be much higher because of barriers to women disclosing abuse.
  • Of 173 women screened at HMP Drake Hall, 64% reported a history indicative of brain injury and for most this was caused by domestic violence.

‘I am being punished by the system that was supposed to be there to help and protect me’

Research involving survivors of domestic abuse has highlighted how the Criminal Justice System often fails to recognise and protect women who are victims of abuse and exploitation.

For instance, Megan spoke to the BBC about how she had been repeatedly subjected to domestic abuse by her former partner. He was then arrested and later convicted for murder. The day of the murder, Megan says her ex asked her to pick him up from the train station and withdraw money for him – something she says she used to do for him on a daily basis. This was used to argue that she had aided her partner in a murder that she knew nothing about.

Megan’s account is just one example that illustrates how women can be unfairly criminalised in abusive relationships.  It is understood that minoritised women, women with disabilities and women migrants are less likely to report incidents of domestic abuse and more likely to experience criminalisation.

It is also important to recognise that the pains of unjust criminalisation extend beyond the formal punishment period. For instance, women who are unjustly criminalised will have a criminal record as a result. Research by Unlock has found that women with a criminal record are more likely than men to experience challenges accessing employment and education and housing. This is likely to have a substantial and long-term impact on women’s life chances.

What Needs to Change?

The Centre for Women’s Justice has set out 20 actions in order to protect women subjected to domestic abuse against criminalisation. These actions include:

  • Ensuring effective legal defences are available to victims whose offending, or alleged offending, stems from their experience of domestic abuse.
  • Introducing national police guidance on responding to suspects who are potential victims of domestic abuse and other forms of violence against women and girls.
  • Ensuring appropriately qualified female interpreters are available to support identification of potential victims for whom English is not their first language and to enable them to participate in any proceedings.
  • Introduce a mechanism to expunge criminal records for crimes committed as a consequence of coercion, abuse and exploitation, or at least have them filtered from mandatory disclosure under the disclosure and barring scheme; and loitering and soliciting are decriminalised.

You can access the full report and recommendations proposed by the Centre for Women’s Justice here.