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Violent crimes against women in England and Wales reach record high

September 8, 2016 ·  By Sandra Laville for www.theguardian.com

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Director of public prosecutions says use of social media to threaten and control is driving factor behind 10% rise in number of cases to 117,568 in 2015-16

The DPP said that historical under-reporting of offences meant that the number of cases being charged was only a proportion of the offending taking place. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

The DPP said that historical under-reporting of offences meant that the number of cases being charged was only a proportion of the offending taking place. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

The number of prosecutions relating to violence against women and girls in England and Wales reached a record level last year, the director of public prosecutions said, as she warned of the increasing use of social media to threaten and control.

Alison Saunders said the ease with which such crimes could be committed online was contributing to the increase in prosecutions. The number of offences against women, including domestic abuse, rape and sexual assaults, rose by almost 10% to 117,568 in 2015-6.

Speaking to the Guardian as the Crown Prosecution Service published its annual report on violence against women and girls, Saunders said: “The use of the internet, social media and other forms of technology to humiliate, control and threaten individuals is rising and it is something that we will possibly see increase further. It is undoubtedly easier to commit a lot of these crimes online, people do it without thinking, it is more immediate and it is about the reach and ability to communicate to so many more people.”

New offences such as the recently passed revenge porn laws were also adding to the caseload. Since the new law of disclosing private sexual images without consent was introduced in April 2015, there have been 206 cases of revenge pornography taken to court – with many individuals pleading guilty, according to the DPP.

These include a defendant who sent intimate photos of a woman to members of her family via Facebook and threatened to post further pictures online. He was sentenced to 12 weeks’ imprisonment suspended for 18 months after he pleaded guilty to an offence of disclosing private sexual images without consent.

Another defendant posted intimate pictures of a woman, who was not aware the photographs had been taken, onto Facebook. He was sentenced to a 12 month community order, fined £110, ordered to pay court costs of £295 and given an indefinite restraining order.

However, 206 prosecutions reflect a tiny proportion of complaints of so-called revenge porn. More than 3,700 victims contacted a special helpline set up last year in its first 12 months.

Other areas where online abuse is being used as a tool of harassment and intimidation are within the record numbers of stalking cases being taken to court. In 2015-16 the CPS prosecuted more cases of stalking and harassment – 12,986 – than ever before. Of those, almost 70% involved ongoing domestic abuse, and many perpetrators used the internet or other technology to carry out the offending.

Such is the scale of the offending that special guidance is being issued to prosecutors about the growth of cyber stalking to improve prosecutions. Guidance is also being given to prosecutors on the use of false online profiles and websites which are being set up in the victim’s name, containing false and damaging information intended to harass and intimidate.

But the DPP accepted that historical under-reporting of offences such as stalking, domestic violence, rape and sexual assaults, meant that the number of cases being charged was only a proportion of the offending taking place.

Other key areas relating to online abuse showed sharp increases in the number of cases being brought. These include a 32% rise, to 2,094 cases, of sending grossly offensive or indecent messages under the Malicious Communications Act, and a 20% increase to 2,026 in similar offending under section 127 of the Communications Act. The DPP said these cases related mostly to online abuse, or abuse via text, email and other forms of technology.

Saunders also identified an emerging area of concern as the use of extremely violent pornographic communications, such as women being raped, or the posting of images of women who have suffered severe injuries or are being subjected to sadistic violence. She highlighted increases in prosecutions under new sections of the law for such cases, with 1,737 prosecutions in the past year.

Saunders said everyone from tech companies like Twitter and Facebook, to police and the CPS and wider society, needed to do more to tackle the growing scale of threatening and abusive communications online. “The flip side of that is that the evidence is out there and it is pretty incontrovertible evidence. We have been working with Twitter and Facebook to help us train prosecutors in how to be aware of what evidence is available and talking to them about how they can help us and victims.”

The scale of offences make up nearly 19% of prosecutors’ workload – more than any other single tranche of crime, including terrorism and fraud.

While some, including Maria Miller MP – chair of the House of Commons women and equalities committee – have called for tech companies to take more responsibility for what they publish or face paying for the policing of online crimes, Saunders said she believed tech companies were doing more to take down abusive communications and accounts.

But she added: “I am sure there is much more that tech companies can do to stem the flow. There is far more that all of us can do and that society as a whole can do to tackle this and make it unacceptable. We need to make sure prosecutors and the police are up to date with how people are using social media, what new platforms are emerging, what type of evidence we might gather and how we might use it in prosecutions.”

Rachel Krys, co-director of the End Violence against Women Coalition, said the rise in prosecutions being brought by the CPS was a positive sign.

“We welcome this comprehensive report, the transparency it offers and the CPS’s ongoing attention to violence against women and girls in all its forms. The increase in prosecutions shows that more women are seeking justice.

“But it is still the case that the majority of women and girls subject to these crimes do not report them to the police, and the specialist services which support them are fighting for survival.”

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