The law and the ‘one in four’

A barrister takes issue with the UK government's 'shock-and-awe' approach to domestic violence statistics.

Jon Holbrook

Topics Politics

When it comes to domestic violence the UK government has a clear view: domestic violence is prevalent, it is serious and it needs to be tackled. So in his foreword to Safety and Justice (1), the government’s new consultation paper on domestic violence, the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, begins by telling us that ‘domestic violence accounts for a quarter of all recorded violent crime’.

Putting that in human terms, Blunkett tells us that ‘one in four women experience some form of violence from a partner in their lifetime’. And in case the message still hasn’t hit home, Blunkett concludes his opening paragraph with the statistic ‘every week two women die as a result of domestic violence’.

You may at this stage be wondering if domestic violence is quite as prevalent or severe as the government maintains. If so, Blunkett addresses your doubt by explaining that ‘domestic violence is usually a hidden crime, victims suffer silently, afraid for themselves and for their children’. So just how bad is domestic violence? According to Blunkett, ‘the trauma and long-term effects suffered by children living in a violent household is incalculable’.

It is obvious that domestic violence exists and that it blights the lives of many. It is equally clear that there are many instances of domestic violence where the perpetrator deserves a stern response from the criminal justice system. But is the situation really as bad as Blunkett’s shock-and-awe approach suggests?

Take the government’s often quoted statistic about one in four women suffering some form of domestic violence in their lifetime. This figure comes from Home Office research published in 1999 that ‘was designed to maximise victims’ willingness to report domestic assaults and threats’ (2).

This tendentious design explains why the survey asked if the respondent had ever been ‘sworn at or insulted by a current or former partner’. The idea behind this question, the researchers say, was ‘that having said “yes” to one question would make it easier to say “yes” to subsequent questions’, namely ‘has a current or former partner ever used any physical force against you?’. This is an example of the researchers setting out, not to establish the prevalence of domestic violence, but to amplify its prevalence.

Amplified or not, the survey does help to put the ‘one in four’ statistic in perspective. For a start it relates to ‘some form of violence’. Clearly, ‘violence’ can embrace anything from a grab of the arm to a knife attack. Thankfully, the Home Office research showed that most domestic violence was at the lower end of the severity scale. When asked about the last incident of domestic violence, 65 percent of respondents said it involved a push, shove or grab and 59 percent said it resulted in no injury (3).

The ‘one in four’ statistic uses a person’s lifetime as a timeframe. Yet in terms of experiences that bother people and in terms of shaping government policy, surely an annual timeframe would have been more appropriate. As it happens the researchers did ask about the frequency and severity of domestic violence over the previous year: but the government has chosen to give these findings less prominence.

What the researchers discovered was that 2.2 percent of women had been assaulted with injury over the previous year (4). So Blunkett could have opened his foreword by saying that ‘one in 45 women is injured from domestic violence every year’. But clearly, what such a statistic would have gained on accuracy it would have lost on impact.

The government uses shock statistics because it believes that society is complacent about domestic violence. ‘For too long, society has tolerated or ignored domestic violence’ claims the Home Office trailer to Safety and Justice (5). In his foreword, Blunkett relies on research that ‘shows one in five young men and one in ten young women believe that violence towards a partner is sometimes acceptable’.

It is interesting that Blunkett has not relied on the Home Office’s own research of 1999, which dealt in detail with victims’ perceptions of domestic violence. What this showed was not that people thought domestic violence was acceptable, but that only 17 percent of most recent domestic violence incidents were considered by their victims to have been crimes (6).

Probably part of the reason for victims being reluctant to criminalise their partner’s violent behaviour is the fact that, as the researchers say, many of the incidents were perceived ‘as too trivial in intent or action to warrant the attention of the criminal justice system’ (7).

But another related factor is that victims of domestic violence, and no doubt other members of the public as well, are able to distinguish between something that is wrong and something that is criminal. Or to put it another way, they are able to distinguish between something that is a private matter to be sorted out by those affected and something that warrants criminal justice intervention.

When the government talks about changing public attitudes to domestic violence, it is seeking to challenge the widely held view that domestic violence, although wrong, is a matter that is often best left to be resolved by those affected. Harriet Harman, the solicitor general, has been particularly keen to challenge this view with her frequently stated opinion that ‘if you commit assault at home you are every bit as much a criminal as someone who assaults a stranger in the street’ (8).

In 2002, Harman aimed this message at any crown prosecutors who may have been minded to drop a domestic violence prosecution when urged to do so by the woman victim. A victim-centred approach, warned Harman, may not be in the public interest as ‘she [the victim] might want to forgive him, but the next time he assaults her she could be killed’. In place of this victim-centred approach we have Harman’s law: domestic violence = crime = criminal prosecution.

And when speaking about Safety and Justice in the House of Commons, Harman repeated her message that ‘violence that takes place behind closed doors is no less serious than violence against a stranger in the street. From now on, domestic violence must be treated as the crime it is’ (9). In other words the domestic element of domestic violence is seen as irrelevant by Harman, and she views violence in the home between partners in an intimate relationship as no different from violence between strangers on the street.

But there is a difference. Domestic violence is an issue that impinges on the most private of matters: the relationship between present or past partners. It raises a range of complex personal and emotional issues that are absent from cases of violence on the street between strangers.

Domestic violence should be approached by respecting the autonomy of those affected. They are not helped by the government hitting them with the shock-and-awe approach, or exhorting them to prosecute by saying that they are no different from the person assaulted on the street by a stranger.

Jon Holbrook is a barrister (

Read on:

spiked-issue: Domestic violence

(1) Safety and Justice: The Government’s Proposals on Domestic Violence (.pdf), June 2003

(2) Home Office Research Study 191 (.pdf), Domestic Violence: Findings from a new British Crime Survey self-completion questionnaire, by Catriona Mirrlees-Black, 1999, Chap 2

(3) Home Office Research Study 191 (.pdf), Chap 5

(4) Home Office Research Study 191 (.pdf), Chap 5 & Table A.3.1

(5) Internet introduction to Safety and Justice, 18 June 2003

(6) Home Office Research Study 191 (.pdf), Chap 7 & Table A.2.3

(7) Home Office Research Study 191 (.pdf), Chap 7

(8) Victims may lose veto over prosecuting violent men, Guardian, 22 October 2002

(9) Blunkett launches domestic violence initiative, Guardian, 18 June 2003

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Topics Politics


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