Domestic violence prosecutions presumed to be in public interest, lawyers say

Prosecutors may have pressed ahead with assault charges against Caroline Flack due to high public concern around domestic violence, lawyers have said.

Questions have been raised over whether the case should have proceeded amid concerns over the 40-year-old’s mental health.

A prosecutor will decide firstly whether there is enough evidence to pursue a case, and secondly whether it would be in the public interest to do so.

Former director of public prosecutions Lord Ken Macdonald told the PA news agency there would generally be “a strong presumption” that bringing charges in any domestic violence case would be in the public interest.

He said: “There is a high public interest presumption in favour of prosecution in domestic violence cases because domestic violence is such a common crime and it’s a dangerous crime.

“We have about 170 or 180 people every year, mainly women, who are killed during domestic violence incidents. There is a huge amount of public concern about these offences.

“Generally, there would be a strong public interest presumption in favour of prosecuting a domestic violence case where there is enough evidence to do so.”

Police and lawyers are encouraged to pursue charges even where the alleged victim has withdrawn their support.

Lord Macdonald said: “One of the major problems there is in bringing these cases is that victims often withdraw their complaint and very often that’s because they’re being bullied or threatened or manipulated by the person who has attacked them in the first place.

“So the principle has grown up that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) try and bring prosecutions even if the case isn’t supported by the victim and indeed they are urged to do that.

“Most of the pressure groups around domestic violence are very voluble in saying the CPS should be building cases that don’t rely just on victim testimony.”

Last month a joint report by the CPS and police inspectorates found that investigators and lawyers should boost efforts to pursue domestic cases where the alleged victim withdraws support.

Former CPS prosecutor for the North West Nazir Afzal told BBC Breakfast: “They just follow the evidence. In this case yes the complainant withdrew his support for the prosecution but undoubtedly they felt they had enough, they had I think a 999 call recording, they had body cameras worn by the police, they would have had medical evidence, they would have had other evidence.

“They have to take domestic abuse seriously because we as a country have decided we need to take domestic abuse seriously.”

Concerns have also been raised over the level of support given to vulnerable defendants facing charges.

Lord Macdonald said: “The prosecutors could in theory have said ‘we won’t prosecute this case because she is too fragile’, but that’s quite rare to drop the case for that reason.

“Normally the prosecutor would say ‘well we’ll go through the court process and the court can take into account her mental health when it’s passing sentence’.”

He added: “There is a huge, hidden problem of mental health issues in criminal justice.

“Quite a significant proportion of people who are prosecuted have addiction problems or they have mental health problems or they have emotional problems of one sort or another and the truth is there’s little or no support offered to them.

“To start offering support at that stage of proceedings would be very expensive and we have to really create a whole new form of social service to do that.”

There is renewed concern over the level of domestic homicides in England and Wales after the number of female victims rose by 12 to 99 in the year to the end of March 2019.

The number of domestic abuse-related incidents and crimes recorded by police also rose 24% to 1,316,800 in the same period, and 746,219 were recorded as crimes.

But police only made 98,470 referrals to the Crown Prosecution Service for suspects in domestic abuse-related cases to be charged, and the charging rate fell slightly from 76% to 74% during that time.

More than three-quarters of prosecutions resulted in a conviction.

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