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Topic: Criminal Law

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Full overview of protection from domestic abuse under criminal law.

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law-courtThe criminal justice system comprises a number of key agencies:

The police 
The Crown Prosecution Service
The courts (magistrates' courts and Crown court)
The probation service



There is no specific offence of ‘domestic violence’ under criminal law, but many forms of domestic violence are crimes, e.g.:

Assault,  False imprisonment, Criminal damage,  Harassment, Attempted murder, Rape


Being assaulted, sexually abused, threatened or harassed by a partner or family member is just as much a crime as violence from a stranger, and often more dangerous.

Whether the criminal law can protect victims is dependent on the particular type of violence and circumstances of the violence, as well as on the responses of criminal justice agencies such as the police, probation and courts. Attrition is also a serious issue.  (This is the process by which reported crimes are drastically reduced in number as they proceed from the initial report to the police, through charging, prosecution and eventual sentencing). See a full overview of criminal law.

  • In 30% of domestic violence incidents reported to the police, no action is taken.
  • In a further 38% of cases, they give a warning, only.
  • On average, 26% of reported incidents results in arrest - and just over a quarter of these lead to a charge (7% of all reported incidents.)
  • Perpetrators are often charged with crimes that are less serious than the original offence.
  • 4% of reported incidents results in a conviction.
  • Bindovers and fines are the most common sentences for perpetrators of domestic violence - and only one in 200 offenders receives a custodial sentence. (0.5% of recorded incidents).

While successful prosecutions for domestic violence offences are rising - from 46% in December2003 to 68% in September 2007 - these percentages are based only on the small proportion of cases that get as far as the courts. 

One problem is that the criminal prosecution process focuses on incidents and ignore the fact that domestic violence involves a pattern of ongoing and controlling behaviour.  The criminal law can also only rarely provide a remedy for  emotional abuse - which can also have a serious and lasting impact on a woman or child's sense well-being and autonomy.  

Since 2004 we have seen the development of Specialist Domestic Violence Courts (SDVCs) with associated in depth support services for high risk victims(through Independent Domestic Violence Advisers or IDVAs).  In Croydon,  the combined criminal and civil court is being developed (on the US model).  Women's Aid believes this is the way forward in order to achieve effective outcomes across criminal, civil and family law.

Data taken from British Crime Survey 2004-5 (Finney, 2006) and from Hester (2005).  See also  Crime in England and Wales 06/07 report.


The police are a key 24 hour agency for women experiencing domestic violence, and the first port of call in emergency. However, only a minority of victims report domestic violence to the police . Despite this, domestic violence accounts for 16% of recorded violent crime.


View the Domestic Violence Bibliography (pdf) for full references.
View the Domestic Violence FAQs (PDF) for more information and statistics.