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End the unjust criminalization of female victims of violence
Centre for Women’s Justice calls for reforms to end unjust criminalization of victims of violence against women and girls .

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Unjust criminalization

This is a guest blog by Katy Swaine Williams of Centre for Women’s Justice.

"I am being punished by the system that was supposed to be there to help and protect me."

Naomi (not her real name)

Naomi is one of 18 women who share their stories in a new report from Centre for Women’s Justice, exposing how victims of violence against women and girls (VAWG) are unfairly arrested, prosecuted and convicted for offences arising from their experience of abuse. 

The report, Double Standard: Ending the unjust criminalisation of victims of violence against women and girls, summarises relevant research and includes new legal analysis from Birmingham City University, as well as insights from two roundtables with frontline practitioners.  It calls for reforms in law and practice to transform the response to women and girls as victims and alleged offenders. 

Victims of VAWG can be unfairly criminalised when they use force against their abuser in self-defence, when they are coerced by their abuser into offending, or where they offend under duress of circumstance.  Allegations against victims are sometimes deliberately used as a tactic by perpetrators to extend their control.  In this way, the criminal justice system can be led to collude in the abuse. As one domestic abuse service provider told us:

This is happening to women all the time.

Current legal defences do not protect survivors of domestic abuse from prosecution or conviction when they are driven to offend, and failings in practice mean that decisions to arrest and prosecute victims do not take proper account of the context of abuse in which offending sometimes takes place. 

The law has been reformed to provide effective defences for other groups of victims facing similar circumstances, including trafficking victims and householders facing an intruder.  However, no such protections have been introduced for women and girls whose alleged offence takes place in the context of domestic abuse, creating a double standard. 

Maia (all names have been changed) is a migrant woman with two young children.  She was convicted of an assault offence against her husband after pushing him in the shoulder. This was despite third party evidence of his prolonged physical and emotional abuse of her, including use of her immigration status as a means of control. She was separated from her children due to bail conditions.  Her conviction was overturned on appeal.

Naomi’s violent partner coerced her into doing paperwork for his horse breeding business.  Naomi was prosecuted as a co-defendant with her abuser in relation to animal welfare offences he had committed, despite the local authority’s knowledge of the abuse. She concluded:

The Magistrates’ Court and the local authority have acted recklessly and without an ounce of compassion towards me, they appear to be grossly ignorant of domestic abuse.

Proper consideration of contextual abuse in criminal justice proceedings can be hampered for Black, Asian, minoritised and migrant women by many factors, including concepts of honour and shame, as one women’s service provider told us: 

Many times if they do [disclose abuse] and they take that risk, that sort of slander and social stigma can also be transferred on to their children…

 As highlighted by Hibiscus Initiatives, disaggregated data should be published on gender-based violence and its links with Black, Asian, minoritised and migrant women’s pathways into the criminal justice system; and training and awareness raising is needed on the barriers faced by these women, using a gendered analysis of race, faith and culture.

The hostile environment for migrants presents another barrier to disclosure of abuse, carrying with it the risk of destitution and deportation, as well as institutional cultures of disbelief and indifference.  Experts told us about failings by the police and other criminal justice agencies in interpreting signs of abuse of minoritised women, and the impact of poor-quality interpreting in court.  Proposals in the Nationality and Borders Bill would unfairly criminalise migrant women who are victims of trafficking, modern slavery, or domestic abuse.

© Erika Flowers

Agenda has reported on how young women and girls’ experiences of violence, abuse and exploitation can drive them into the criminal justice system in distinct ways. Rights of Women and others have explained how provisions in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill threaten to increase the unjust criminalisation of young women and girls who are judged to have ‘ought to have known’ that someone in their company was in possession of a bladed article or offensive weapon.

The report reveals how victims of a range of forms of VAWG can be unfairly criminalised, as a result of counter-allegations by perpetrators, threatened proceedings for allegedly false allegations, and police failings in response to traumatised victims.

Case studies in the report reveal the need for training and guidance to be improved for the police and prosecutors.  As one women’s service provider told us:

There is not much training for police on the frontline about trauma responses.

Practitioners described a cursory approach by the CPS, in which there is no attempt to take account of contextual domestic abuse when implementing the evidential and public interest tests in relation to a victim suspect.  One lawyer commented:

In terms of the CPS, there is no ownership of cases.  It is just a box ticking exercise, particularly in the lower-level cases.

 The report concludes with recommendations for reforms in law and practice to address these systemic failings – including:

  • Legislation to provide effective defences for individuals whose alleged offending occurs in the context of domestic abuse.
  • Changes to the Code for Crown Prosecutors and an effective mechanism for challenging prosecution decisions in these cases.
  • Guidance and training on domestic abuse and victims’ offending for the police, CPS, court staff, criminal defence lawyers, probation practitioners, judges and magistrates
  • Greater investment in women’s specialist services, including those led by and for Black, Asian, minoritised and migrant women.

For more information, contact:


Thanks to Erika Flowers for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Erika’s work at 

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2 Responses

  1. You can suffer years of abuse, physical and psychological, but when you defend yourself. You are then the one who’s in the wrong. Can’t leave situation, due to no family support or anywhere to go. So not seen as a victim, just the one who’s charged whilst the years of abuse is ignored.

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