Police and the Criminal Prosecution Process

Most forms of domestic abuse are criminal offences, and you (or someone else on your behalf) may decide to contact the police for help.

The police are a key 24 hour agency for women experiencing domestic violence, and the first port of call in emergency (by dialling 999). Being assaulted, sexually abused, threatened or harassed by someone you know or live with is just as much a crime as violence from a stranger, and is often more dangerous.

What can the police do?

When the police have been called, their first priority should be the safety and well-being of you and your children, and to protect everyone present from injury or further harm. Their role is to investigate – not to mediate, counsel or allocate blame by asking inappropriate questions.

If you call the police because you are experiencing domestic abuse, they should always give you the opportunity of being listened to and spoken to separately, away from your abuser.You can also ask to be seen by a woman police officer (WPC).

The police should provide you with an interpreter if you need one, and should never ask your children or other family members to interpret in cases of domestic abuse(1).

The police should help and support you by:

  • Protecting you and your children.
  • Removing the risk of further violence – ideally by arresting and removing the perpetrator.
  • Arranging first aid or other medical assistance (such as an ambulance).
  • Finding out what has happened, taking into account the known risk factors associated with domestic violence (2).
  • Offering you support and reassurance.
  • Helping you to access other agencies (for example, Women’s Aid).
  • Arranging transport to a safe place, if you want this.

Domestic abuse should be treated as seriously as an assault or threat from a stranger. Each police officer can use his/her powers to intervene, arrest, caution or charge an abuser.

If there are reasonable grounds to justify an arrest, the police should do this without asking your “permission” or insisting on a statement from you first – though they will need to take one later.

They do not need a warrant to arrest someone who they suspect is about to commit an arrestable offence, nor do they need to witness an assault. The abuser can then be held for up to 24 hours (or 36 hours at weekends) before they need to charge him.

If the perpetrator has left before the police arrive, the police should circulate a description and make every effort to find him. Officers should also gather alternative evidence (for example, photos of damage or injury) in order to charge and build a prosecution case that does not rely entirely on your statement. They should ensure that you and your children are safe while they do this.

If you do call out the police, and they take action against your abuser, do ask them for and make a note of the crime reference number as this may be helpful when you contact other agencies.

If your immigration status is insecure, a record of police attendance to an incident of domestic violence might form part of your case to apply for leave to remain in the UK.

What happens next?

If the police arrest your abuser, it can act as a deterrent against re-offending, at least for a short time. It can also demonstrate to your partner that the police take domestic abuse seriously, and that this behaviour is not acceptable.

Arrest does not necessarily lead to a charge. If the police decide to proceed, they will consult the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) about the charge, and will then pass the papers to the CPS who will make the final decision to continue with a prosecution. See the section below on The criminal prosecution process

Prosecution does not in itself guarantee protection or safety in the long term, and there may be increased danger of reprisals from a vengeful partner or ex-partner. You may also face a number of practical and emotional difficulties.

Nevertheless, the criminal justice system has an important role to play in preventing and challenging domestic violence, both symbolically and practically, and it is worth seriously considering all the options.

Police bail

If the police arrest and charge the abuser, they will then make a decision whether to keep him in custody or to release him on bail.

If they release him on bail, they will attach conditions to this, aimed at protecting you, your children and any witnesses from further intimidation and violence.

The police should make every effort to consult you before making conditional bail decisions.

They should also inform you of any conditions they have placed on the abuser, what these conditions mean and what action you should take if these conditions are broken.

They should give you as much information as possible and should explain that the responsibility for complying with police bail conditions rests with the abuser.

Domestic Violence Protection Orders

Domestic violence protection orders (DVPOs) s are available across England and Wales. They can be put in place by the police and magistrates to put in place protection in the immediate aftermath of a domestic abuse incident.

When a DVPO is put in place, a perpetrator can be banned with immediate effect from returning to a residence and from having contact with the victim for up to 28 days, allowing the woman time to consider their options and get the support they need. However their power is limited, at this time a breach of DVPO is not yet a criminal offence.

Women’s Aid are calling for more effective sanctioning of perpetrators by using a DVPO where appropriate to ensure the safety of women and children, and by making a breach of a DVPO a criminal offence – a recommendation made in the evaluation of the pilot of DVPOs.

The Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme

The Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme is also known as Clare’s Law, named after Claire Wood who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in 2009.

Implemented in 2014, the scheme gives members of the public a “right to ask” police where they have a concern that their partner may pose a risk to them or where they are concerned that the partner of a member of their family or a friend may pose a risk to that individual.

If an application is made under the scheme, police and partner agencies will carry out checks and if they show that the partner has a record of abusive offences, or there is other information to indicate that there may be a risk from the partner, the Police will consider sharing this information.

For many women who are experiencing domestic abuse, calling the police is not the first option, but is often only a last resort after repeated attacks, and the scheme can only reveal recorded incidents of violence and abuse.

If you want to find out more information about the scheme in relation to your own or a friend or family members situation, call your local police on the non-emergency number, 101 to ask for further information on how to apply.

Further information on police services

Most police forces have a specialist division to provide ongoing follow-up, investigation and risk assessment of incidents of domestic abuse.

These may be called Domestic Violence Units or Community Safety Units. The officers should have been specially trained to respond sensitively, to give you guidance and to use their knowledge of domestic violence offending to advise you during the investigation and prosecution processes.

Each police force in the UK has its own website, though some are more informative and helpful than others. Some police websites give information about how they respond to domestic abuse incidents, and may include copies of policy documents, and information on what you can expect if you report an incident to them.

Some police forces now use a risk assessment tool to help them identify who is at greatest risk of further harm from their abuser. That means that they may ask you questions which may not seem directly related to this offence, but will help them decide the extent to which you may be at risk of further abuse.

Some police forces now share information with other agencies (for example, health visitors or social workers) in order to help provide support and protection to women and children most at risk of further domestic abuse.

Each police force now has a domestic violence policy and/or a strategy or guidelines that you could check if you are unhappy with the way they responded to you.

It isn’t always easy to find this information on the website, however, and you will probably need to use the ‘search’ facility.

To find the website for the police force covering your area, you can go to the UK Police Service portal.

There is a national domestic violence training programme for all police officers which aims to ensure that all police forces respond appropriately when called to domestic violence incidents.

If you are at all unhappy about the way the police have treated you, you could make a formal complaint. Your local Women’s Aid organisation or independent domestic violence advocacy service will be able to help you with this.

Crime prevention officers (or their local equivalent) should be available to survivors of domestic violence to suggest improvements to home security, including advice on smoke alarms, burglar alarms and improved lighting.

The non-emergency phone number for your local police is 101 regardless of your location. In an emergency, you should always dial 999.

The Criminal Prosecution Process

Once an abuser has been arrested and charged, the file may be passed to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). The police and the CPS have agreed charging standards for certain types of offence, including assaults. These guidelines aim to ensure that consistent decisions are made in relation to charging.

Police custody officers should liaise with the CPS at an early stage to seek advice on the sufficiency of the evidence, type of evidence required and the most appropriate charge(s). Custody officers should ensure that all advice given by the CPS is recorded on the prosecution file.

A pre-charge advice scheme is being developed so that crown prosecutors will be available to provide advice to the police, prior to charging.

When this scheme is fully in use, it will mean that between locally agreed hours (typically 9am – 5pm), no defendant should be charged with an offence (within the scheme) without reference to the “duty prosecutor”.

Outside these agreed hours, officers should consult the out of hours telephone advice service, CPS Direct.

What does the CPS do?

The CPS will take into account the safety of the victim, and any others (including children) who are involved.

They also take the views of the victim into consideration when deciding whether to proceed with a prosecution – but this is not the sole determining factor.

The CPS produces various publications on domestic abuse, including a leaflet entitled “Domestic violence: How prosecution decisions are reached” (which is available in several languages), and a more substantial document, “Domestic Violence: Policy for prosecuting cases of domestic violence” (also available in a variety of languages).

They also have a policy for prosecuting cases of rape and sexual assault. See the CPS website for these documents.

Withdrawing your support for a prosecution

If you withdraw your support for a prosecution, the CPS will want to know why.

You are likely to be interviewed by a police domestic violence officer, who will try to find out why you are wanting to make this decision, and whether any pressure has been put on you.

There are several reasons why you might want to withdraw your complaint of domestic violence. for example:

  • Your abuser has said he is sorry and you want to give him another chance.
  • You don’t want your children’s father to have a criminal record.
  • You’re worried that a police record will mean your abuser will lose his job
  • You may have been threatened, and/or you feel frightened about what the abuser or his family might do if you proceed.
  • You don’t want to have to give evidence in court.

In certain circumstances (for example, if you have been intimidated) your statement can be used as evidence without your being called to court.

If you do decide to withdraw your statement, your wishes will be taken into account, but the final decision about prosecution will be taken by the CPS in conjunction with the police.

They may decide that the “public interest” supports going ahead with the case, despite your wishes.

If the CPS decides to proceed

If the CPS decides to proceed, the abuser will initially be taken to a Magistrates’ Court, after which (depending on the seriousness of the charge) he will either be remanded in custody or released on bail.

If bail is given, then conditions can be imposed by the court (for example, that the abuser stays away from you and your home, or your place of work, or that he lives at a certain address).

If the CPS decide not to prosecute

If the CPS decide not to prosecute you have a right to know why and to ask them to review the case.

Providing evidence

It may be several months before the full case is heard. During this time, the police may contact you again for further information. You may be asked to make a “victim personal statement”, which will add to the information you have already given in your initial statement.

This gives you a chance to talk about how the abuse has affected you (both this particular incident and in general) and to raise concerns about fear of intimidation, and whether you want to claim compensation or request support from other agencies.

Any additional evidence you can give the police at this stage will be very helpful.

For example, you may give as evidence:

  • Medical reports of injuries and other effects of the abuse.
  • Statements from neighbours who have witnessed or heard the abuse.
  • Names of any other agencies to whom you have reported the violence in the past (for example, housing, social services, your health visitor, GP or midwife).
  • Reports from the children’s schools on the effects on the children.
  • Any injunctions (court orders) which are in place against your abuser, or which you have applied for previously.
  • Any particular fears you have, or threats he has made.

The case may be heard in the Magistrates’ Court or the Crown Court (depending on the charge). You will only be called to give evidence if your abuser has pleaded not guilty at the initial hearing.

If he pleads guilty, or if he is found guilty after the evidence is heard, then the court will usually adjourn for reports from the Probation Service before sentencing.


The sentence depends on the seriousness of the offence and whether your abuser has had any previous convictions. It can range from a conditional discharge to a prison sentence.

The criminal law can offer you some protection, particularly if your partner is given a custodial sentence, but it is primarily aimed at dealing with the offender.

Under new legislation, a restraining order can be attached whenever criminal proceedings have been taken against your abuser (even if the conviction has not been upheld) if the court believes you are at risk.

Alternatively (or in addition), you could consider applying for an injunction under the civil law. See Getting an injunction for information on this process.

Domestic violence courts

In some areas (for example, Derby, Leeds, Wolverhampton and West London) there are specialist domestic violence courts in which the staff will have been specifically trained to deal with the issues and will try to “fast track” criminal domestic violence cases.

These special courts should also enable better partnership working between the various agencies. More specialist domestic violence courts will be set up in the near future and, if you live in one of the areas covered by them, it should make it easier for you to go to support your complaint and to give evidence in court if you need to.

Independent Domestic Violence Advocacy Services

Independent domestic violence advocacy services are also being set up in the areas covered by these courts, and elsewhere, and many women find these services very helpful. If there is a domestic violence advocacy service in your area, it may help you to decide what to do, and will support you through the court process, if you choose that option.

Back to The Survivor’s Handbook

Further information

For help and support with going through the prosecution process, you could contact a specialist domestic violence advocacy service, which may be part of your local domestic abuse service. You could also ring the Freephone 24 Hour National Domestic Violence Helpline (run in partnership between Women’s Aid and Refuge) on 0808 2000 247.

Specialist domestic violence officers should help you in safety planning, taking into account risk assessment and risk management processes. They should be available to give you advice on additional safety measures that you or others could put in place, building on measures that you have already developed.

To find the police force covering your area, visit the UK Police Service portal or call the non-emergency number, 101 that will put you through.

You could also contact Victim Support on 0845 30 30 900. The police might already have put you in touch with them.

Their website gives useful information, including their leaflet on “Going to court”.

Volunteers from Victim Support can provide emotional support and help you in confidence to explore the different options open to you.

The Victim Support Witness Service will support you if you go to court, including giving you information about the court and prosecution process. If you want, they will sit with you in the waiting room and when you are called to give evidence.

The Home Office  produces a leaflet, “Witness in court”, which you should be sent if you are asked to appear as a witness.

Crown Prosecution Service  website – For information and in particular how decisions on prosecution are reached.

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