Inadequate status for victims of crime is not uncommonly experienced in the journey from offence to the, sometimes, life-long aftermath. It starts because the offender has not respected the victim, in effect, conferring low status. It continues in court where there is no advocate for the victims or their families, just one for the defendant and one for the Crown. And it often recurs in the reviews and inquiries that follow domestic homicide. At the inquest, many families have no legal assistance, despite paying taxes that help fund legal aid for the agencies called to give evidence. The inquest is often the one opportunity for a family to find out critical information. I have worked with many families who suffer terribly because they do not have enough of the facts and/or because an agency is withholding something, or equally difficult, the family perceives information is being withheld.
In AAFDA, we are raising the status of several parties in the Criminal Justice System via provision of specialist and expert advocacy for the families and by training in many subject areas including for Chairs and Commissioners on how to conduct reviews, for example, Domestic Homicide Reviews (DHRs).
We have helped to enhance the practice of DHRs and improve the associated statutory guidance so that these reviews illuminate the past to make the future safer. DHRs were initiated in 2011 after a campaign by my family and others to bring them into law. I have assessed c.600 of these for the Home Office as a member of the National Panel that quality assures them, as well as in my role as a Home Office appointed ‘reader’. In the latter role, I advise the panel and make recommendations as regards responding to the commissioners of the review.
Done well, these reviews should raise the status of four parties. First, the deceased. Often, the story of the person killed in domestic abuse is distorted, implying some blame on the victim and substantiating myths around domestic abuse and homicide. We know from the work of Dr. Jane Monckton Smith that being married to or co-habiting with the killer, gives a woman the least status. While respecting the freedom of the Press and the important role it plays in a liberal democracy, we are working with https://www.welevelup.org/ to influence media to report more responsibly and accurately.
The statistics reveal that in most domestic homicides, the victim is usually a woman killed by a man. The reviewers should make sure that as far as possible they stand inside the victims’ shoes and view the world as she would have seen it. What was the trail of abuse for this victim? Who did the victim interact with in the community and which agencies, statutory and voluntary, touched this victim’s life? Unless service providers know what the victim’s view of the world was like, and how she perceived her chances of having a life free of abuse, how can they hope to design services to keep victims safe?
The second party is the family and friends of the victim. We are working to raise the status of these people who are experiencing complicated grief, whose energy levels may be low and who can be made to feel at fault for not protecting their own. They are interacting with agencies when at their most vulnerable and it is easy for them to be unaware of the extent to which they can participate in statutory reviews and be unaware of the influence they can bring. That’s when the strength of independent, specialist and expert advocacy can ensure that the family’s percipience is recognised. This helps ensure that the families are given the opportunity to be integral to a review, rather than simply involved. That means having the chance to contribute as often as they wish in ways that they choose including having legitimate influence on the scope, content and impact of the review. They should have the opportunity to meet the panel of experts conducting the review and plenty of time, in private, to review the draft report. Finally, if they wish, they should be given the opportunity to help create the changes promised in the report. Along the way, they should be updated as frequently as they prefer and on time. The guidance is clear that chairs of DHRs cannot be the advocate for the family because an advocate needs to be unfettered by any specific responsibility to other parties in the review. In short, the advocate needs to be independent and separate to the process.
The third party is the professionals involved in the case. Many of them are inappropriately blamed and scapegoated. We should remove the threat of blame except in cases of culpable negligence or a clear couldn’t care less attitude. I believe in this passionately for three reasons. First, blame prevents reviewers from getting the facts as professionals fear consequences. We need to create review environments that emancipate professionals to be their creative best to help the reviewers to make our futures safer. We need to hear what it was like for the professionals trying to prevent this homicide. Second, blame is often directed at the person least able to resist, arguably, sometimes, not being too dissimilar to the misuse of power and control that we see in domestic abuse. Third, blame can be illusory. As if the public admonishment of a front-line professional means the future is safer when we all know that the problems usually lay deeper in systems.
The fourth party is future victims. We know that next month seven women will be killed in domestic violence — we just don’t know their names yet. We may learn that some of them predicted it though; my sister did hers. Raising the status of people suffering abuse and hopefully keeping them alive means the review must lead to improved responses by those who have opportunities to intervene. That could come from more resources, for example, and better leadership and supervision.
There have been c.600 DHRs since they became law in April 2011. As advocates for families, and in my quality assurance roles described above, we have read pretty much all of them (we missed one panel meeting in seven years). A continuing frustration is that DHRs often present lists of ‘lessons learned’ when often, what those lists really amount to are ‘lessons identified’. Learning implies some form of graduation and arguably follows an investment of resources, for example to fund training. So, we are back to status. Raised status probably means lessons are more likely to be learned.
Frank Mullane is the CEO of AAFDA (Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse), which is a centre of excellence for reviews into domestic homicides and for specialist peer support. AAFDA provides specialist and expert advocacy for families with reviews after domestic homicide including in DHRs and trains professionals including in how to conduct DHRs. Frank is on the assessment panel for the Designate Domestic Abuse Commissioner, is a member of the national Victims’ Panel chaired by a Justice Minister, a Home Office appointed reader of DHRs and sits on the national panel that quality assures these reviews. Frank’s sister Julia and nephew Will, were murdered by the husband and father in November 2003. His comments are his own.
 Monckton Smith, Williams and Mullane (2014) Domestic Abuse, Homicide and Gender. Strategies for policy and practice, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan 2014