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Violence against women: looking beyond the criminal justice system

By Helen Mills, Research Associate at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.

 This article is based on an earlier article the author published on the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies website as part of the Centre’s Justice Matters for Women project.

'What would you do if he hit you?' asked the midwife at an antenatal check up. I won’t go into what I said exactly, but the midwife picked up on what I didn’t say and she told me;

'You go to the police. Women are not alone.'

Posing this question to all pregnant women seems commendable to me; a necessary acknowledgement that male violence against a partner pre- and post-birth is a common experience and should be neither a taboo or something to keep quiet about.


Working at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, much of the research myself and my colleagues have been involved in over several years has led us to the conclusion the criminal justice system as it currently stands is far too big, far too costly and far too intrusive. That the criminal justice system is not the solution to the wide range of social problems that currently end up within it [1].Even ‘knowing’ these limitations of the criminal justice system, the midwife’s advice to me is understandable. As a friend of mine said, if my partner starts beating the crap out of me I don’t want a social worker, I want to call the people who turn up with a fast car and gun.


Criminal justice is firmly equated with providing a robust response to harm. It has entered common sense that if we take something seriously, we should expect the criminal justice to be involved. But relying on criminal justice to address violence against women is problematic for many reasons, not least of all because most incidents do not come to the attention of criminal justice agencies. In 2011/12 the police recorded the following incidents as involving women victims:


  • 25,008 incidences of violence
  • 172 homicides
  • 14,767 rapes
  • 18,780 sexual assaults [2]


These figures clearly capture a significant amount of harm against women. However the vast majority of harms women experienced are omitted from these figures. Many incidents will not have been recognised as violence (including by those experiencing it). Others will not have fitted a formal crime classification. Even when recognised as violence by the person at the receiving end of it, the complex, usually intimate, context means underreporting is chronic. It is estimated the actual number of women in the UK who experience violence in a year is nearer three million [3], making violence more prevalent for women:


‘than stroke, diabetes and heart disease.’ [4]


A commitment to downsizing criminal justice is not for myself and my colleagues, synonymous with stepping back protection for women or suggesting a return to informal ‘slap on the wrist’ response to this violence. Far from it. We take very seriously the unacceptable levels of violence against women and, knowing this, are interested in asking whether our current approaches are sufficient. We are interested in joining with others to ask: Are there better ways of responding to this violence and to the harms violence against women causes than the response offered by a criminal justice system?


By ‘better’ I mean responses that prioritise aspects that have long been recognised by campaigners in this field: treatment, survivor support, prevention, and protection against future violence.


Criminal justice is a process that prioritises above any of these things conviction and punishment of the ‘guilty’. Determination of guilt is based on a legal process dependant on establishing individual guilt and a narrow concept of legitimate ‘offenders’ and ‘victims’. Undoubtedly this is ineffective in its own terms at securing convictions in cases of violence against women [5]. In addition, this process often doubly victimising women, criticisms most recently publicly voiced by Keir Starmer, the former Director of the Crown Prosecution Service. Writing about women victims’ experiences of the police and the courtroom, he said:


‘If the criteria for testing their credibility match the characteristics that make them vulnerable in the first place, we have a fundamental flaw in our approach.’ [6]


Leaving aside the suitability and potential of criminal justice and the legal process that underpins it as a response to violence against women, it is necessarily a system which addresses what we might do after an incident has occurred. Why start here? If the ultimate goal is to end violence against women, it makes sense to focus energy and resources on preventing violence occurring in the first place. If we approached violence against women as a public health problem rather than solely a criminal one, could this rebalance resources and attention in favour of prevention and addressing the systemic roots of violence against women? It has been suggested that applying a public health approach to sexual abuse for example, would enable a greater focus on potential perpetrators, on victims and their families, as well as on what role ourselves, the public, could play in tackling sexual violence and abuse.[7]


It will, I imagine, be uncontroversial to state that if you started from scratch and wanted to address the problem of violence against women you wouldn’t design something that looks like our criminal justice system as a solution. What is open to interpretation is what to best do about this: where should criminal justice feature in strategies to address violence against women?


Starting a conversation


There have undoubtedly been important gains in making criminal justice work better for women. And anyone seeking a difference for women can’t afford to ignore criminal justice or pretend it doesn’t exist. However, it is important to be clear about the limitations of these efforts, and, if we are interested in long term strategies to end violence against women, we should acknowledge criminal justice has a relatively minimal role to play.


I expect such a position is pushing against an open door for those campaigning around violence against women. This movement has long embedded its work in addressing wider structural issues such as patriarchy, inequality and power; advocating initiatives including better sex and relationship education, community mobilisation, and alleviating gender inequality. By implication, criminal justice is marginalised in such strategies. But it is a sector that has typically stopped short of a critical perspective about criminal justice.


In the Coalition’s 2010 strategy to address violence against women and girls, on the first page, Teresa May states:


'The causes and consequences of violence against women and girls are complex. For too long government has focused on violence against women and girls as a criminal justice issue - dealing with the fallout of these terrible crimes.' [8]


The government has made little progress thinking through the consequences of this acknowledgement of the limits of criminal justice [9]. Thinking through the practical implications leads to some more difficult questions for those who want to tackle the harms women face. I also do not underestimate the challenges of in thinking beyond criminal justice. Nor the strength of attachment some may feel to the promises of criminal justice – protection, rehabilitation, and justice – whatever the current realities of criminal justice for women. Rejecting criminal justice as the starting point for a conversation about reducing harms for women is destabling; particularly for those working within it. But, there are good reasons why those pursuing strategies to downsize criminal justice and those interested in long term strategies to tackle violence against women could share common ground in looking beyond criminal justice. I hope others will think this is a conversation worth having.



[1]The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies are currently undertaking a three year initiative in response to this analysis about the limits of criminal justice, called Justice Matters. To read more about this work, visit:

[2] Office for National Statistics (2013) Crime Statistics, Focus on: Violent Crime and Sexual Offences, 2011/12.

[3] End Violence Against Women Coalition. See

[4] Cerise, S. And Dustin, H. (2011) We need an integrated approach to ending violence. Criminal Justice Matters Volume 85 Issue 1. Pp14-15

[5] As illustrated by David McCandless for rape. See

[6] Starmer, K. (2013) Britain’s criminal justice system fails the vulnerable. We need a victim’s law. Guardian Comment is Free (Monday 3rd February 2014).

[7] McNaughton Nicholls, C. And Webster, S. (2014) Preventing sexual abuse as a public health issue. The Conversation (17th January 2014).

[8]HM Government (2010) Call to end violence against women and girls: Strategic vision

[9] For example see End Violence Against Women Coalition (2013) Deeds or words? Analysis of Westminster Government action to prevent violence against women and girls.

And Ingala Smith, K (2013) The Coalition Government and broadening the fight to end violence against women and girls beyond the criminal justice system (21st June 2013)


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