Police watchdog criticises Northamptonshire force over domestic abuse death case

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A police watchdog has criticised the Northamptonshire force for a “significant number of failings and missed opportunities” in the manner it dealt with a domestic abuse case which ended in the death of a woman.

Mavis Clift, 75, died in a fire at her home in Northampton on January 1, 2008. Her husband sustained injuries in the fire and her daughter, Susan Robinson, suffered serious injuries.

Paul Barber, Susan’s estranged husband, was charged with the murder but died in prison while awaiting trial.

In the months leading up to the fire, Ms Robinson had telephoned police repeatedly reporting harassment, criminal damage and a threat to kill by her estranged husband, and reported that she was ‘terrified of what he was going to do’. Other family members had also expressed concerns to the police about his behaviour.

Issuing the findings of the IPCC investigation has awaited an inquest into Mrs Clift’s death. At the conclusion of an inquest in Northampton today (Friday) a jury reached a finding of unlawful killing.

The IPCC investigation found that:

- there were repeated occasions when Susan Robinson was reporting domestic abuse incidents but they were wrongly categorised by control room staff which resulted in the true extent of the ongoing difficulties not being recognised;

- intelligence showing an escalating pattern of offending by Paul Barber was not routinely accessed and did not form part of police decision making when deploying officers to incidents;

- there was only limited evidence that control room staff linked new incidents with previous ones resulting in some reports being viewed in isolation;

- some incidents were incorrectly graded meaning officers were not deployed in a timely manner to incidents, and sometimes not at all;

- a problem with transferring and updating information to the Force Intelligence System led to confusion when Ms Robinson reported that Paul Barber was breaching his bail conditions;

- on several occasions there was a failure by officers to secure evidence from witnesses in relation to Paul Barber’s behaviour.

IPCC Commissioner Derrick Campbell said: “It can never be known if Mavis Clift would be alive today had Northamptonshire Police dealt effectively with the repeated allegations made by Susan Robinson. Although Paul Barber was arrested and released on conditional bail on a number of occasions, what is clear is that there were repeated failings and missed opportunities to deal effectively with the risk Paul Barber presented to Ms Robinson and her family.

“There were a number of occasions where if thorough enquires had been conducted there may have been an opportunity to charge Paul Barber and place him before a court earlier. We upheld the family’s complaint that police had failed to listen to her properly, failed to protect her, and failed to link incidents prior to the fatal house fire.”

The IPCC investigation began belatedly in March 2010 after Northamptonshire Police had failed to refer the case earlier. The investigation ended in December 2011 and the findings were accepted by the force at that time.

Mr Campbell said: “The awful events that unfolded are now six years old but I am sure they remain vivid in the memory of the bereaved family to whom I send my sympathies. As a result of our investigation three police officers and three members of staff received management action from the force. But our main concerns lay not with individuals but with failings in the systems and policies in place at Northamptonshire Police at the time. The force accepted our findings and, following a domestic homicide review, introduced a range of changes to strengthen its response to domestic abuse and training for officers. I am aware that a senior officer has apologised to the family and given a public assurance that lessons have been learned.”

The IPCC investigation examined Northamptonshire Police’s response to over 20 reports to police made by Susan Robinson or other members of the family and friends dating back to May 2007.