Domestic abuse court experiences - perspectives of victims and witnesses: research findings

This research reports on 22 victims’ and witnesses’ experiences of court (including children and young people) since the introduction of the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 in April 2019.

3. Police reports and investigation

Headline findings

  • Police practices were described by study participants as inconsistent, with some positive sensitive practices identified but often framed as an exception or associated with a single individual or encounter.
  • Victims and witnesses in this study had a lack of understanding or clarity about the rationale behind evidence-gathering processes. In many cases, they felt important evidence was disregarded or overlooked. In some cases, victims and witnesses were required to proactively collect and push for particular evidence to be considered.
  • The immediate aftermath of reporting domestic abuse was often marked as a time of particular vulnerability for victims and witnesses. Most participants felt that the onus was on them to keep themselves safe during this time.
  • In a small number of examples, victims appreciated the explicit use of DASA by the police - informing victims and witnesses about its scope, helping victims identify an abusive course of conduct and making them aware how evidence-gathering was adjusted accordingly.


In this section we report on participants' experiences of reporting to the police and further contact points in the leading up to court. For all participants, experiences of court began with, and were inextricably bound to, experiences of police. Contact with police marked victims' and witnesses' initial encounter with the justice system, stemming from their decision to report domestic abuse or reports by another individual (particularly in the case of children).

Initial reports and statements

In all cases, participants described how their decision to contact the police (or the police's initial contact with them) followed a pattern of abuse, threats, or violence, most of which had never been previously reported. In most examples, an initial call to police was made during a moment of crisis or fear: including late at night or from hospital after sustaining an injury. Many participants were navigating multiple life challenges while making these initial reports. As one young complainant described:

Well, the first time it was when my daughter …she was in the hospital premature born… we got her home when she was a month old. And that was the first time when I phoned the police 'cause [I] had to report him saying he was going to set the house on fire. (Young Complainant 1)

Recognising these potential inter-related vulnerabilities of victims and witnesses provides important context to understanding experiences of reporting domestic abuse, highlighting the need for an understanding of trauma among justice professionals including the police.

Challenges associated with reporting and statements

Providing statements inevitably meant participants were asked to recall and recount distressing and traumatic events. Timescales for providing statements varied, with many requiring repeated re-telling with different officers or statements about extensive and multiple charges being spread across several occasions. A young complainant noted that the complexity and extent of the abuse she reported (spanning 3 years) required initial statements to take place over multiple meetings across a two week period – complicated by her need to organise childcare arrangements. Others described the inadequacy of a single opportunity to respond to questions and recall experiences. An example from a child was:

I was just to remember the order of it, 'cause it was still blurry 'cause of the state of mind I was in at the time, like, how it was quite stressful. (Child 5)

As this illustrates, expectations of providing a full and linear narrative can run counter to the challenges of recalling traumatic experiences in a context of distress. Subsequently, many participants expressed frustration that their accounts to police did not represent their experiences. As one adult victim explained:

I felt like I should have said more. 'Cause there's been, like, things in the past that I've never ever reported and I wish now that I had done it then. (Adult 11)

This sense of a 'missed opportunity' was expressed by many. Even when participants were able to provide a full account, they noted concerns that it had not been 'heard' or adequately recorded, as described by a young complainant:

I felt like they weren't writing things down. Like, they were putting things in their own words … see when they read over my full statement, I was like, that's not even true. Like, I didn't even say that, you haven't put that down right. (Young Complainant 4)

Attitudes towards, and treatment of victims and witnesses

The attitude of some police officers taking statements had a significant impact on individuals' experiences of giving a statement and how much of their experiences they felt able to share. Promisingly, some examples of police practice were reported as sensitive and rooted in an understanding of domestic abuse. Such experiences were often presented as counter to prior expectations or experiences – suggesting enduring fear of police attitudes despite some positive practice. An adult victim provided an example of this:

Police came out, it was two female officers, very, very nice, they were understanding … softly spoken and spoke to me like - I don't want to say spoke to me like a victim, but spoke to me like an adult who needed help, you know, it wasn't a case of, another domestic, another argument, another junkie, you know, like what I have had in the past. (Adult 1)

As this quote illustrates, in cases when individuals felt properly listened to, believed, and understood, experiences of reporting abuse to the police could represent moments of relief and in a few cases could also contribute to an increased sense of safety. In a small number of cases, participants also described that police explained or referred to 'the new law.' In such examples, by explicitly outlining their potential to investigate patterns of abuse (rather than isolated incidents), the police were viewed as demonstrating some understanding of coercive and controlling behaviour.

I suppose it's that [second time around] the police have been better at understanding that it's holistic, rather than treating everything individually…it's only the most recent officers who looked at it holistically... (Adult 2)

Several accounts highlighted variability in police responses and attitudes, noting that good practice was often associated with an individual officer rather than being standard. This was complicated by the need for participants to engage with multiple police officers, compounded when abuse was unrelenting and contact with the police was a regular occurrence, as described by one victim:

I got to the point where I was phoning the police just about every week because it [the abuse] was…he wasn't stopping. (Young Complainant 1)

In most cases interviewees described difficult encounters with the police, including those where they felt the ongoing nature of their abuse was not recognised. As one adult victim reported:

I said, 'Look, can I ask at what point this becomes a crime, because he's doing all these individual things step by step, do you know,' and I'd phoned the police maybe 15 times by this point over things that I knew he'd done ...and I was told, 'Everything's looked at individually,' it's not holistic. (Adult 2)

For another participant, where the accused was a police officer, reporting was particularly challenging which she noted was responded to with neither sensitivity nor care. This woman's awareness of the direct links and professional relationships between the accused and those taking her statements undermined her confidence in the process. In the quote below she suggests the importance of particular sensitivity in cases such as hers:

I think that when someone's reporting that it's a police officer that's involved [in perpetrating domestic abuse], I think a bit of care would have gone a long way, … So, I do think, you know, when there is a callout to a domestic, especially when it's a police officer, that a bit of thought needs to go into how they're approaching the victim, because the victim's already petrified of talking to a police officer. (Adult 4)

Numerous examples were given of police communication that lacked sensitivity. This was particularly significant in the context of abuse of a sexual nature. One particularly concerning example involved a young female complainant (17 at the time of incident) who was required by police to watch and confirm her identity on a 'sexual tape' in front of police and family members.

Participants' experiences of police attitudes and responses were often perceived to be associated with aspects of their (the victims') identities and biographies. Characteristics (such as age, gender, addiction, family associations, previous police contact, and mental health) were all noted to affect the degree to which victims' and witnesses' felt they were taken seriously and respected. An example given by a young complainant was:

Even now it's still as if the police just push it to the side, like, 'Oh you're…oh this…oh your [police] record and all that,' and that's all they see you for... And especially because the police that were coming out, some of them knew me, which was … which really wasn't fair as well (Young Complainant 1)

Insensitive, dismissive, and disrespectful attitudes from police were memorable and set individuals' wider expectations of the justice system. An example is noted below, showing how past experiences impact individuals' confidence and likelihood to report future abuse:

I didn't have much faith in the police before but see now, it's down to a zero because they just…they don't care… it's just made me feel like now if anything else does happen, I know, like, myself, I'm not going to report it to the police, 'cause they haven't been much help to me. (Young Complainant 1)

As this quote illustrates there is a need to recognise how individual police encounters have significant impact on victims and witnesses' future propensity to report and subsequently support their access to safety.

Statements from children/child witnesses

In the case of children, statements were recorded in a variety of ways and settings: in police stations, schools, or homes; via phone[53] or in person; and through both joint investigative interviews and situations with only police personnel. As with adults, children were often required to provide multiple reports and statements at different times and in different settings. Children reported mixed experiences of providing a statement – with the two oldest children in this study describing experiences in more neutral or positive terms. An example of this was:

I didn't think it was going to happen that soon, do you know what I mean? Like, 'cause there'd been arguments and fall outs and stuff. And then I was giving a statement to the police all of a sudden and I was like, 'Oh right, this is serious' …it wasn't really stressful through it, like. It was just a shock. (Child 5)

Encouragingly evidence from one child highlights the potential of the joint investigative interview setting to support children to feel at ease:

[Giving the statement] was really casual, like I didn't feel like it was - like - a police - like you could tell you were walking into a police building … But the actual room itself, it wasn't formal, it was more like with toys, and like bright colours, and stuff… we went into the room. .. and they told us that there was, like, cameras, and we were being recorded. And we were with a police, and a social worker … But I think it was, like, quite helpful, like the way they done it, like it didn't felt really, like, under pressure, and stuff. (Child 4)

For younger children, the challenge of providing a statement to police was associated with isolation from a known 'supporter' and the number of questions asked of them. This linked to statements from other parents and older siblings who described worrying about younger children's wellbeing when required to provide statements seperated from family support. This was explained by a child:

[I] just didn't like the fact that I had to speak to them [the police]. They weren't that bad, but they just kept on asking me questions and but, when they were speaking to me, they didn't let my mum in the room… I wanted my mum to come in with me… It would have helped if my mum could have come in and just was there with me. (Child 2)

In keeping with several adults' accounts, one child voiced concerns about not being taken seriously or fully 'heard' by the police whose manner was described as intimidating and unsympathetic:

They [the police] came to the house and it was quite late at night, I think it was like half six, seven maybe 'cause I was doing my maths homework. And they came in. And they didn't sit down or anything, they just kind of stood over.… They were just kind of like taking the other person's side instead of listening to the whole story (Child 3, 13 years)

Further evidence gathering

Alongside evidence captured through initial reports and statements, the police were responsible for additional evidence gathering prior to decisions about whether to proceed to charge and what charges would be brought. A recurring theme across many interviews was frustration and lack of clarity about why some evidence was disregarded or not collected. Several interviewees raised concerns that they believed relevant evidence or intelligence was not pursued by police often despite participants' efforts to bring it to the police's attention; such as following up potential witnesses or using phone, text, email records. Police decisions about which evidence to pursue or not were not always clear to interviewees, adding to these concerns.

These experiences were pertinent to experiences of court outcomes explored in Chapter 6. When the reasoning for such decision making was unknown to participants, both adults and children felt that significant aspects of their abuse, or its scale, was unrecognised – subequently detracting from their overall sense of justice.

In several examples, individuals describe variable responses from different police officers to the same evidence – in some cases after a complaint or request for a case review had been raised. An example is reported by one adult victim:

I actually went to the police with a lot of stuff like to say listen, look at all this. Like messages and everything. And they were just a bit like, 'Well there's not really enough there to have like, to charge him, it's just more cheek.' And it wasn't until he had [assaulted the neighbour] and then came back to me for them to actually have arrested him over all the same stuff that I did actually tell them about. (Adult 8)

Furthermore, a notable and recurring theme was the role that victims and witnesses themselves took in relation to capturing evidence – often noted to be encouraged or suggested by the police themselves and linked to the protective or safety measures they were also encouraged to adopt. Although some examples were given of police proactively capturing additional witness statements, hospital records, CCTV, and text messages, most participants perceived that the onus was on them to capture additional evidence. A typical example of this is provided by one adult victim:

[The police said] 'What you need to do is start recording this' and, 'Well, you'll need to change your telephone number if he's phoning you 25 times a day', and 'You need to get a separate phone number for him to phone for contact with his daughter.' (Adult 12)

Decisions to proceed

In most cases, participants were unclear about the rationale of police decisions about whether to proceed with a case, which charges were being brought, and what evidence was submitted to COPFS. As well as the lengthy delays to the process (see section 4), the lack of transparency about decisions to proceed acted to reduce victims' and witnesses' sense of control in the process.

Furthermore, although in most cases participants described a desire to see the accused charged and brought to justice, there were also examples where interviewees described how the decision to proceed to prosecution was taken out of their hands and went against their desire to stop the process. An example of this is provided by an adult participant:

Once I'd sort of triggered that process by contacting the police, there was kind of no way to kind of stop it, if you know what I mean. I didn't really want the prosecution to proceed, in all honesty. (Adult 14)

This was a particular concern for parents whose children were expected to provide statements or could be required to testify in court. Several parents noted their desire to protect their children from these experiences by withdrawing from a case – and their frustration upon realising that this withdrawal was not possible.

Follow up support and communication

The period after providing a statement was marked for many by an absence of communication or support. This is exemplified by a young complainant:

Having to say the actual words [in a statement] is the hardest bit. And then, like, you don't really get any support after it. Like, you're just, kind of, left high and dry, oh well you've given us the information and then you're just left there sitting pure depressed all day. (Young Complainant 3)

Communication or its absence was particularly significant in this period for supporting participants' sense of safety and their ability to maintain a sense of control over, or feel centred by, the justice process. Knowledge about charging and custody arrangements were particularly critical for helping safety plan, as one adult explained:

Police that I'd spoken to, he actually kept me updated over the next couple of days 'till eventually he did get him. And he phoned me after he got him, just to warn me he has picked him up, but they have had to release him... they did [tell me] he has been charged and they have sent a report to the procurator. (Adult 6)

Such information could support participants to maintain some (albeit limited) sense of control and understanding of the processes they were involved in. However, most interviewees did not feel this information had been forthcoming. Instead they described being left 'in the dark' or having to persistently request information, as one young complainant reported:

There was no communication between me and the police. I had to constantly be phoning them to find … chase stuff out. And it was just all the lack of communication, the fact that I had to keep phoning to find out anything. (Young Complainant 1)

Ways Forward from participants' perspectives

Ensure consistent and effective use of DASA when responding to domestic abuse – police explaining the law to complainers and building a case collaboratively with them.

Improve communication with victims and witnesses about police processes and the rationale behind decision making, including the gathering and use of evidence.

All encounters with the police are respectful to victims, sensitive and trauma informed.

Increase recognition by police of the potential impact of trauma on victims and witnesses: particularly when taking initial statements and gathering further evidence.

Further efforts to maximise victims' and witnesses' sense of safety in the period after reporting – recognising particular vulnerabilities associated with this time and ensuring the onus is not on victims to keep themselves safe.



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