Domestic abuse: Responding to the shadow pandemic

Research Institution / Organisation

University of Liverpool

In Collaboration With

N8 Policing Research Partnership (N8 PRP)

Principal Researcher

Professor Sandra Walklate

Level of Research

Professional / Work-based

Project Start Date

June 2020

Research Context

​Domestic violence is a severe problem in the UK, but the social isolation regulations imposed in March 2020 have exacerbated dangers ("a perfect storm for controlling, violent behaviour behind closed doors"). Media coverage has intimated the likely impact of the ‘stay at home’ directive on the nature and extent of domestic abuse. Evidence suggests that this has already taken its toll on the rates of intimate partner homicide, and that the number of assaults and murders will continue to rise considerably this year. In April, the 2020 Home Affairs Committee noted that the police are currently struggling to protect the vulnerable. Several forces have innovated, introduced digital reporting, and new types of emergency responses in order to protect victims. The courts are also struggling to hold trials and sentence domestic violence offenders, and the backlog in cases is likely to mean that victims will be dissuaded from taking cases to court.

This project will evaluate the efficacy of policy and practice innovations by both the police and courts to deal with the immediate crisis and explore their viability for future practice in face of ongoing service demands and the fiscal impact of such as the longer-term consequences of the global pandemic take root. The research team, which consists of experienced experts in the field, will work together with CJS partners to produce fast-delivery reports in order to facilitate shared good practice in the socialisolation period and its immediate aftermath; and explore longer-term trends which emerge in the next eighteen months.

Research Methodology

This 18 month project is divided into two periods, each with a separate set of activities

For the period when social isolation restrictions are still in place, and in the six months when they are relaxed, we will:

  1. Engage in a systematic literature review (both peer-reviewed and grey-literature) of the impact of COVID19 nationally and internationally on domestic violence.

  2. Document any changes in service responses being offered to victims by criminal justice and other agencies, exploring examples of innovative practice responses. 

  3. Evidence the demands in relation to domestic abuse being made on the criminal justice system and other services under the conditions of social isolation. Given the sensitivities and the circumstances under which this project will be implemented it will not include talking to women about how they have experienced such service delivery.

  4. Engage in an evidence-based statistical review of the nature and extent of domestic abuse reported to the police Jan-June 2019 as compared with Jan-June 2020, dealt with by magistrates courts during the same time periods, and responded to by voluntary sector organisations also over the same time period. 

  5. We will collect police-generated statistics which will allow us to map the demography of people who reported offences, and (similarly) map the social characteristics (ethnicity, age, etc) of those whose cases will eventually result in a formal charge, and court adjudication.

  6. We will analyze the increase in reporting and the effectiveness of innovations in police online out-reach and reporting methods developed in response to the difficulties of face-to-face policing. We will conduct an on-line survey with all police forces in England and Wales, magistrates courts and voluntary organisations designed to estimate their views on the changing nature of the demands they have faced since March 23rd 2020. This survey will also pay attention to the ways in which they have tried to respond to demand whilst facing their own challenges for social distancing. 

  7. Examine the ways that the UK court system attempted to cope with domestic violence cases which were already journeying to trial/sentence when social isolation resulted in the closure of a substantial number of magistrates’ courts. We will interview (online) a sample of Justice’s Clerks and Senior Legal Advisors in England and Wales; and analyze court-generated process statistics (cases dealt with, time from charge to disposal, etc).

The legacy period:

The mid and long-term socio-economic impacts of COVID 19 are likely to continue a trend of increasing demands on police and court services since already existing evidence points to the links between unemployment rates, precarity in the housing market, and the longer-term consequences of disaster and disease on rates of domestic abuse. The nature and extent of such consequences may also be shaped by the changing legal definition of domestic abuse, as proposed in the Domestic Abuse Bill currently before parliament. It is important to learn lessons for the future as quickly as possible. Therefore, we propose to:


  1.  Follow-up any innovative practices identified from the on-line survey and explore how these practices have developed in (online) interviews with the practitioners charged with their implementation. This will allow us to develop an appreciation of their strengths and weaknesses when compared with ‘conventional’ responses.

  2. Analyze the time taken for all domestic violence cases reported from March 2020 to reach resolution in court (or discontinuation), and the reasons recorded for particular actions in that journey by criminal justice agencies. It will allow us to consider how responses led to a longer-term embedded change in the workings of the criminal justice system in regard to domestic violence. 

  3. Document the ongoing survival and practices of NGOs as they come to terms with the new normal.

Interim reports and publications

You can access the findings from this project here:  The Shadow Pandemic Working Papers
This page will be updated on a regular basis.  The first working paper is now available.

Working Paper No 1.   Domestic Abuse: Responding to the Shadow Pandemic Project.
Domestic Abuse-Family Violence, Disasters and Restrictions under Covid-19: An Overview.

Date due for completion

December 2021
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