Police are dropping investigations into three quarters of domestic abuse-related crimes reported to them, a watchdog has found.
HM Inspectorate of Constabulary said more and more victims were “not getting justice”, and being left at risk as perpetrators go free.
Inspector Zoë Billingham said the rate at which investigations are closed early was “high and worsening”.
She added: “The situation has worsened considerably over the past five years, to the extent that on average the police now decide not to continue to investigate three in every four domestic crimes reported to them.
“Many forces are unable to explain why these figures are so high and there is significant variation among forces. We have asked all forces to take immediate action to review their own position.”
A report on the policing of domestic abuse during the coronavirus pandemic found that in the year to March 2020, 55 per cent of domestic abuse cases were discontinued with a marker meaning that a suspect was identified but the victim did not support prosecution.
A further 20 per cent were stopped with a different marker meaning the victim does support a charge but the police found “evidential difficulties”.
The inspectorate said police had not explained the “huge variation” between regional forces’ use of the outcomes, and that some discontinued cases could have been progressed with improved evidence-gathering or support for victims.
Ms Billingham told a press conference that some police forces made officers go through “stringent” processes before discontinuing a case, while others let inexperienced officers close investigations down without adequate oversight “so they can deal with other things”.
She added: “In some forces the culture needs to be addressed head-on where there are suggestions made to domestic abuse victims of ‘are you sure you really want this to happen, this is going to take a long time, we’re going to take your phone away from you’ - all that stuff that you’d never hear in relation to other crimes.
“It’s the police’s job to pursue a crime on behalf of the victim, not keep on pushing it back onto the victim to make these decisions.”
The inspectorate told police forces to immediately review why investigations are shut down and ensure all possible evidence and all attempts to engage victims are explored.
Ms Billingham said “no justification” had been presented for regional variation, and said that in some forces eight in 10 domestic abuse cases were being closed down early.
“The implication from us is that in those forces where there are really high rates of closures, there must be something going horribly wrong,” she added.
The inspectorate also warned that in the small proportion of cases that reach court, worsening backlogs mean that some prosecutions automatically “time out” because of delays.
Research also suggests that the longer it takes for a hearing to take place, the more likely a victim is to refuse to give evidence and potentially collapse the case.
The inspectorate found that overall, police forces had responded well to coronavirus by doing more preventative work on domestic abuse and adapting contact methods and working practices.
But it warned that police must “maintain their focus on protecting and supporting victims of domestic abuse as life returns to normal” and other crimes rise.
The report followed an official government apology over plummeting rape prosecutions, and the home secretary has commissioned separate work on the effectiveness of police work to protect women and girls.
Andrea Simon, director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, said the findings came after lockdowns left victims “trapped and isolated iwth perpetrators”.
“The government's awareness campaign sought to reassure victims they were not alone during this period, but it's unacceptable that the majority of reports of domestic abuse to the police end with no further action,” she added.
“The massive backlog of cases in the courts also looks set to impact victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence disproportionately, and we urgently need to see better responses to women and girls reporting crimes across the criminal justice system, alongside sustainable investment in the safe accommodation and community-based support specialist women's services provide.“
Valerie Wise, the domestic abuse lead for charity Victim Support, said demand for its services had increased during the pandemic and was currently running at 25 per cent above average.
She added: “Although we welcome the report’s findings that the police have used innovative new ways to respond to domestic abuse during the pandemic, it is extremely discouraging that three out of four cases are closed without perpetrators being charged.”
Safeguarding minister Victoria Atkins said the government was concerned about the number of domestic abuse cases that are not being prosecuted.
“We expect police to review why this has happened and ensure that everything is being done to ensure that victims are supported and perpetrators of domestic abuse face justice,” she added. “We will look at the recommendations in the report closely and will continue to work with the police in our response to them.”
The National Police Chiefs’ Council said the response to domestic abuse had improved but that it would consider the inspectorate’s findings and “continue to get better”.
The lead for domestic abuse, Assistant Commissioner Louisa Rolfe, said: “We accept that there is still work to be done to improve the experience and service victims receive when they report abuse.
“Domestic abuse cases are some of the most complex crimes that police deal with, and we’ve worked hard to increase victims’ confidence to report.
“I want to reassure victims of domestic abuse who come forward that they will be listened to, treated with respect and compassion and a thorough investigation will be launched.”