Repeat violence in Scotland: a qualitative approach

This report presents findings from a qualitative research study which explored peoples’ experiences of repeat, interpersonal violence. The research involved in-depth interviews with people who have lived experience of repeat violence and community stakeholders who support them.

8. Conclusions and recommendations


This chapter summarises the key findings of the research based on our analysis of the interview data and includes related policy recommendations which have implications for criminal justice and beyond.

Research design

The study aimed to provide a qualitative understanding of interpersonal repeat violent victimisation in Scotland by exploring the views and experiences of people with lived experience of repeat violence, not all of whom identify as victims. This included people with convictions and people with multiple complex needs.

Research questions included:

1. What are the characteristics and circumstances/contexts of people who experience interpersonal RVV?

2. What are victim-survivors' understandings and experiences of RVV?

3. What impact does interpersonal RVV have on victim-survivors?

4. What are victim-survivors' experiences of seeking help and support with RVV?

Fieldwork took place over 12 months, focusing principally on in-depth, qualitative interviews with people with direct experience of repeat violence (n=62), alongside shorter, semi-structured interviews with community stakeholders (n=33). To provide important contextual data on communities and services, this primary data collection was centred in distinct, geographically defined communities: Urban, Town and Rural areas characterised by high levels of deprivation and violent victimisation.

Key findings

Following the original research specification, guided by the international literature on repeat violence, our recruitment strategy targeted people living in communities affected by deprivation, people with convictions and people defined as having multiple complex needs. Most participants experienced violence across the life course, but the nature and intensity of this violence changed according to their circumstances, for example increasing in tandem with escalating substance use and diminishing during periods of recovery support. For others, experiences of violence were more time-limited, though the impact of such violence and external responses to it could be long-lasting.

We distinguished three groups or 'clusters' of lived experience of repeat violence within our sample:

  • Unsettled lives: Comprising men and women aged 25 to 59 years, many of these participants were currently homeless or living in supported accommodation and in recovery from addiction, experiencing deep poverty. They reported the most persistent patterns of repeat violence across the life course, often beginning with childhood experiences of abuse, with men reporting more physical violence and women reporting more sexual violence. Domestic abuse was another common experience in this group, reported by some men and almost all women. Recent experiences of repeat violence were usually related to the drug economy, presented as part and parcel of what participants referred to as a 'chaotic lifestyle'.
  • Mutual violence: Mostly men, aged 16 to 44 years, living in social housing, this cluster of participants was predominantly involved in violence between young people in the community, tit-for-tat neighbour disputes, or violence in or around the night-time economy. Often fuelled by excessive amounts of alcohol, such violence was normalised: described as 'recreational', or as an informal form of dispute resolution. This group were resistant to thinking of themselves as victims despite sometimes receiving very serious injuries.
  • Intermittent victimisation: Mostly women aged 25 to 44 years, this group of participants portrayed violence as being 'out of the ordinary', confined to particular contexts or periods. Most repeat violence experienced was either (a) domestic or sexual abuse confined to one relationship[8] or (b) multiple, unrelated incidents of sexual and/or physical violence usually starting in their teens and mostly perpetrated by peers or acquaintances, and sometimes strangers. Victims of intermittent violence reported alcohol and drug problems or recreational substance use, commonly presented as a way of coping with victimisation.
  • These clusters point to the importance of paying attention to the different contexts and characteristics of different forms of violence and approaching violence as a dynamic condition rather than a series of disconnected events.

The role of gender

The research confirmed gender-based understandings and patterns of repeat violence, with men who have been on the receiving end of violence more likely to identify as perpetrators and women as victims. These identifications were linked to gendered norms relating to violence and victimisation since most of the men and women we interviewed had both perpetrated violence and been on the receiving end of violence, though men had typically engaged in more persistent and more serious forms of physical violence and women had experienced more sexual violence. A minority of men and a majority of women reported physically violent victimisation within the context of intimate relationships, with physical violence perpetrated by men often more persistent, more serious, and more commonly accompanied by coercive control.

The role of drugs and alcohol

Drugs and alcohol featured prominently in participants' accounts, with connections commonly made between poverty, violence and the drug economy, and alcohol, violence and the night-time economy. As well as being understood as drivers of repeat violence, both drug use and alcohol use were described as a means of coping with the impacts of repeat violence and trauma. People who experienced drug- and alcohol-related harms faced barriers to accessing victim support.

Community context

Participants made a connection between poverty, violence and the drug economy within their communities – and this was linked to industrial decline and generational deprivation, lack of local jobs and services, housing inequalities and concentrated disadvantage, social norms sanctioning specific forms of violence, a defensive culture of non-cooperation with the police, and models of masculinity emphasising self-reliance. The high frequency of violence, experienced across different settings, meant that violence was often presented as an endemic, embedded, routinised and normalised feature, though different forms of violence were differently tolerated by different groups within the community. Positive features of communities included close family connections, shared place-based identity, loyalty, and community spirit.

Individual characteristics

The life histories of people who experienced repeat violence were characterised by childhood experiences of neglect and abuse, bereavement and loss, and psychological trauma. They had also often experienced a series of systemic exclusions across their life course, including experiences of being 'looked after' and 'locked up'. Participants reporting a greater number of diverse experiences of trauma and harm in their background reported more persistent repeat violence as adults. These institutional histories had an important impact on their vulnerability to violence and exploitation, their sense of self-worth, their faith in state systems, and their help-seeking behaviours.

Experiences of repeat violence

Participants discussed a range of different forms of violence, including violence between young people, violence in the NTE, community disputes, violence related to the drug economy, violence in institutions, sexual violence and domestic violence. These different forms of violence were described as being overlapping and co-constituted, emphasising an understanding of repeat violence as a dynamic process, wherein diverse forms of violence inform, transform and amplify one another. Pervasive violence across diverse settings informed participants' perceptions of what constituted violence, with 'real' violence restricted to serious violence involving physical injuries inflicted against 'innocent' victims. Physical fights as means of dispute resolution or a form of recreation were deemed to involve willing participants – and therefore no 'victims' (unless things went too far).

Impacts of repeat violence

The impacts and effects of repeat violence are difficult to disentangle from accumulated experiences of associated trauma and harm. Participants disclosed a range of physical and mental health problems with profound and sometimes permanent consequences. A number of participants had received diagnoses for complex PTSD, but an even greater amount described recognised trauma symptoms, including flashbacks, nightmares, paranoia, and anxiety. For some this resulted in social withdrawal and feelings of isolation; others described hypervigilance and emotional reactivity. These reactions negatively impacted personal relationships and social networks. Strategies for coping with trauma included regular binge or heavy drinking, drug use, fighting, and self-harm. Participants were often driven towards such behaviours because family and social support systems were absent.

Attitudes towards reporting repeat violence

The majority of participants in our 'unsettled lives' and 'mutual violence' groups said that they did not and would not consider reporting victimisation to the police, even in cases involving serious injury and hospitalisation. This was linked to rules and repercussions of 'no grassing' and a desire to deal with violence themselves, as well as previous negative experiences with the police, e.g., as a result of being arrested. Within our 'unsettled lives' cohort, there was a deep sense of resignation about victimisation linked to stigma and deeply internalised disadvantage. In other words, they did not see any point in reporting because they did not think they would be taken seriously, or that they deserved support. Participants in our 'intermittent victimisation' group were more likely to consider reporting but expressed reservations based on previous experience of police and criminal justice interactions as victims.

Experiences of the criminal justice system

A small number of participants had ever reported experiences of victimisation to the police, and fewer still had their cases taken forward to court by the procurator fiscal. Most of these participants were in the 'intermittent victimisation' group. As a group, these participants reported dissatisfaction with their treatment by the criminal justice system, recounting examples of insensitive questioning, invalidation, and lack of support or representation, experienced as secondary victimisation. Negative experiences with criminal justice contributed to a lack of faith in formal systems, reinforcing a pervasive sense that nobody cares and no one is coming to help. Despite these negative views and experiences, participants often held community police in high regard, largely because they had taken the time to build meaningful relationships with people within the community.

Experiences of accessing support

Outwith the 'intermittent victimisation' group, very few of our participants had accessed victim support services. Participants in the 'mutual violence' group did not see themselves as victims and tended to adhere to masculine norms emphasising self-reliance. People with 'unsettled lives' often considered themselves as exempt from support services due to their own involvement in violence, or they were actively excluded due to their substance use or housing status. Low levels of uptake were also related to the timing of referrals and readiness for engagement, with several participants reflecting that they did not feel ready to access support immediately after the event, sometimes as a result of insecure living circumstances. One of the major difficulties in offering victim support services to people with lived experience of repeat violence is that they often have other more pressing concerns, such as finding suitable accommodation, alongside prior experiences of trauma.

Preference for informal and grassroots solutions

Many participants explained that they would prefer to deal with issues directly rather than report to the police or any other statutory authorities. This preference for informal resolutions sometimes resulted in an escalating series of tit-for-tat disputes, related to further violent victimisation. Grassroots support services were valued for their community connections and emphasis on holistic response. Smaller, locally based organisations were also seen to offer more individualised support, with an emphasis on building longer-term relationships of trust. Lived experience gave workers credibility, alongside the experience and skills to engage people who are distrustful of more formal sources of support.


Taken together, these findings demonstrate that people who experience frequent and serious repeat violence usually do not bring this to the attention of the authorities, meaning that their victimisation 'doesn't count' in terms of the officially recorded picture of crime. When they do report victimisation they feel dismissed, discredited, and devalued by state-funded organisations and institutions.

This suggests that violence prevention strategies that draw solely on official data relating to offending and self-reported victimisation to target their efforts are unlikely to fully address the complexities of repeat violence and cultural attitudes towards reporting and accessing support effectively. Doing so requires an understanding of the local community context of repeat violence, based on relationships of trust with local community members and representatives.

The findings also point to the need to develop support services that are more inclusive of people with experiences of repeat violence, and which foster empowerment.


Distrust in authority is a major barrier to reducing the harms caused by interpersonal repeat violence in Scotland. To address this effectively requires a commitment to tackling the structural harms which are integral to the everyday experiences of people with lived experience of violence. According to our data, these include:

  • Poverty and inequality
  • Exclusionary educational experiences
  • Inadequate responses to bullying within school
  • Inadequate safeguarding arrangements for looked after children and young people
  • Lack of access to youth services and community facilities
  • Exposure to violence, bullying, exploitation, and drug abuse within institutional/communal establishments including prison and homeless accommodation
  • Lack of access to mental health support
  • Inadequate and overcrowded housing
  • Barriers to employment

Cumulatively these harms create a strong sense that people living in deprived communities, people with convictions and people with multiple complex needs 'don't count' as victims. They also work together to produce cultural norms and/or psychological trauma that make repeat violence more likely.

The findings also speak to the significance of intersecting forms of injustice – relating to gender, race or ethnicity, disability, sexuality, and nationality or migration status. These intersections create distinct experiences of violence that require further examination to arrive at a more complete understanding of RVV in Scotland. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge the high-quality and robust research evidence that already exists on the prevention of violence against women and girls, which tends to be studied separately from other forms of violent victimisation but contains important insights for responding to RVV more generally.

Public health and gender-responsive violence prevention

The findings support a public health approach to violence prevention, identifying multiple forms of violence that intersect, alongside a complex interplay of individual, relationship, community, and social factors which shape vulnerability to victimisation and support-seeking strategies. However, they also support a gendered approach to violence prevention, which recognises that men and women are differently impacted by different forms of RVV, with men disproportionately the victims of violence from other men in public and women disproportionately affected by sexual and domestic violence from men known to them. Prevailing social constructions of masculinity mean that men who experience RVV struggle to perceive themselves as victims and this can prevent them from seeking support. Men also receive less recognition as victims and there is a lack of services tailored to their needs.

The complex nature of the challenges identified means that no one sector can prevent repeat violence on its own, but rather there is a need for a strategic response involving multi-sectoral collaboration. This includes collaboration between community justice and the VAWG sector in Scotland. Examples of what this might look like include:

  • Victim services: Advertise victim support services to people accessing homelessness and drug and alcohol services; Revisit the timing of victim support; Provide sustainable funding for grassroots organisations that provide specialist, holistic support; Challenge the stigma around and increase the availability/visibility of services supporting men who are victims; Provide funds to cover transport costs for attending victim support services.
  • Court: Routinely offer special measures adjustments to all victims and witnesses, regardless of vulnerability criteria.
  • Policing: Prioritise community policing; Training for all call handlers and first responders on domestic abuse and sexual violence so that they can provide a gender- and trauma-informed response; Offer choice to speak to a woman officer; Assign a named officer as the key contact point for individual victims; Provide signposting to local victim support services and grassroots organisations; Provide welfare checks; Keep victims informed.
  • Housing: Increase housing stock to meet the needs of the local population; Improve emergency and temporary accommodation conditions and security provisions; Identify minimum standards of service provision and safety; Implement statutory inspections to hold emergency and temporary accommodation services accountable to at least minimum standards; Reduce barriers to requesting a change to social housing within the community or between local authority areas when escaping violence.
  • Prison: Take action to address drug supply and demand, alongside associated bullying and intimidation; Deliver staff training to develop trauma awareness; Ensure housing is secured ahead of release from custody.
  • Alcohol and drugs: Adopt a public health approach to reduce harms associated with drug and alcohol use; Improve access to rehabilitation facilities; Increase availability of treatment and recovery options; Provide support to families impacted by substance use, as well as drug and alcohol-related deaths.
  • Mental health: Improve access to adolescent and community mental health support.
  • Public health: Work with the third sector to devise media campaigns to address the stigmatisation faced by people affected by repeat violence.
  • Youth services: Expand funding for youth services accessible to those from deprived backgrounds, including community centres and leisure centres, detached and outreach youth work.
  • Children and families: Improve access to high quality, nurturing and affordable early years education and care; Improve safeguarding for looked after children and young people.
  • Education: Promote an inclusive and nurturing culture and ethos that promotes positive relationships; Establish a safe and supportive environment in which bullying is not tolerated; Develop alternatives to school exclusion; Deliver anti-violence education to tackle cultural norms conducive to violence.
  • Economy: Invest in the creation of high-quality youth training schemes and employment opportunities in deprived communities; Work with organisations to train and hire people with convictions.
  • Transport: Reduce cost and increase the availability of transport in rural areas.

Partners will also need to coordinate with each other on violence prevention and victim support strategies relevant to more than one sector. For example:

  • Community justice and VAWG partnerships: Identify and strengthen relationships between different planning processes, where relevant undertaking joint consultation, needs assessment, or progress reporting.
  • Children and families, education, health: Establish shared protocols for recognising and addressing trauma among children and young people.
  • Prison, housing, and criminal justice social work: Coordinate efforts to ensure that those returning to the community from prison have access to safe accommodation on release.
  • Police, health, homelessness: Develop shared training for staff on the experiences of people with lived experience of repeat violence, their rights, and entitlements and how to respond appropriately.

Community development and lived experience

The findings also emphasise the central and critical role of the community in violence prevention. Histories of marginalisation within socio-economically deprived areas are associated with a lack of trust in state institutions. This contributes to a culture of self-reliance and non-cooperation with the police. 'Grassroots' community development approaches that encourage dialogue and ownership have the potential to develop positive relationships between community members and partner agencies, tackling key drivers of RVV through participatory processes.

Features that participants identified as helpful include:

  • Grassroots organisations with knowledge of the local community
  • Community policing presence
  • Peer support from someone with lived experience
  • Trauma-informed and personalised support at the right time
  • Co-located services, so there is 'no wrong door' to accessing support

Victim empowerment

Finally, the findings point to the need to develop support services that are inclusive of people with experiences of repeat violence and promote empowerment for victims going through the criminal justice system. Victims of repeat violence often do not see themselves as 'proper' victims due to their competing identities as 'perpetrators' or 'drug users' or because their experiences have been dismissed, discredited, or devalued in contact with criminal justice processes. Others dislike the term 'victim' because it denotes that a person is vulnerable or has little control or agency.

It is important that services that provide support for people with lived experience of repeat violence challenge stigmatisation and internalised disadvantage by adopting a person-centred approach which empowers people to have the confidence and the ability to access justice and support, should they wish. This involves acknowledging the agency of individual victims and supporting them to make informed decisions, for example about whether they wish to report their experience to the police or want the perpetrator arrested. Such an approach supports and builds on existing strengths and resources – both personal strengths and resources and strengths and resources in their social networks.

Within the literature on violence against women and girls (e.g., Russell and Light 2006), the components of a victim empowerment approach are identified as:

  • Respectful treatment of victims
  • Validating victim experiences
  • Showing empathy and compassion for victims
  • Regarding victim reports as credible
  • Understanding victim reluctance to report
  • Appreciating the needs of diverse victims

Further research

This report has presented the findings of the first qualitative study of RVV in Scotland based on 95 in-depth interviews with people who have experienced repeat violence and community stakeholders who support them. In doing so it has addressed an important knowledge gap, providing a detailed insight into:

  • factors that increase vulnerability to repeat victimisation amongst high-risk groups, including people living in deprived areas, people with convictions, and people defined as having complex needs.
  • the lived experience of repeat violence and related forms of psychological trauma and social harm, including violent offending.
  • the support needs and experiences of people who experience repeat violence, who tend to be less likely to seek and access police and victim services.

Important gaps in knowledge remain. In particular, the report identifies a lack of evidence on repeat violence and access to justice within the following communities and contexts in Scotland:

  • Disabled people
  • People in the LGBTQI+ community
  • Racialised/ethnic minority communities, including migrant communities and asylum seekers
  • Men who experience domestic abuse and sexual violence
  • People living in institutions

All of these groups have unique recruitment considerations that were beyond the scope of this study but should be a priority for future research.



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