Femicide census

How a standard piece of legal software is helping reduce the UK’s troubling rate of femicide

The statistics that two women a week are killed by a partner or ex-partner and that a woman is much more likely to be killed by someone she knows than any so-called ‘stranger danger’ are shocking.

But what troubled Karen Ingala Smith, Chief Executive of NIA, is that such statistics masked the actual number of women murdered and who they were. So in 2012, Karen began a personal blog ‘Counting Dead Women’ to give those women a name.

Meanwhile, in another part of London, Freshfields’ pro bono programme had independently identified that there was a lack of joined-up documentary evidence on women killed through domestic violence. We, along with our client Deloitte, had together used Relativity e-Discovery software to manage ‘big-ticket’ litigation and investigations in our fee-earning work. We knew that if we applied the same evidential rigour and use of cutting-edge document management technology used in such litigation to the underfunded domestic violence sector to collate and link information on domestic homicide deaths, such a tool could become a ‘game changer’ in how such deaths were treated. In the course of our due diligence we came across Karen’s already sizeable blog, and in the best traditions of pro bono partnerships, two of the largest professional services firms in the world started to work with a lone blogger, though a short time later Women’s Aid, the UK’s umbrella organisation on domestic violence, joined.

‘If the pro bono offering of a law firm is about doing what we do best around issues that are important to society, a critical precursor is the need to use every tool we have and collaborations with fee-earning clients and the NGO community.’

Led by Intellectual Property Partner Avril Martindale and a team of committed associates, the database grew through Freedom of Information requests to include all murders of women in England under the definition of femicide. Creating a database about the deceased was relatively simple; but where the information required involved those still living, it called on our high-level assessment of information risk and consultation with the Information Commissioner’s Office, as well as the ongoing challenge of collecting publicly available verifiable data from a multitude of sources.

With the help of the census, the patterns in these women’s murders become evident. It enables accurate, verifiable information to be used in articles, discussions, research papers, legal cases and submissions to government, opening up the possibility for evidence-based policy change. Ultimately its goal is to reduce the number of women killed: knowledge of patterns and trends, vulnerable age groups and the different responses from state agencies all play a part in understanding why women are murdered. For example, domestic homicide murders are seen to be the most predictable of murders, with known risk factors.

We have presented the census to the Metropolitan Police. It has been discussed at high levels in the Home Office, including with the then Home Secretary Theresa May. If the pro bono offering of a law firm is about doing what we do best around issues that are important to society such as access to justice and women’s rights, a critical precursor is the need to use every tool we have to our advantage, and critical collaborations with fee-earning clients and the NGO community, in order to make justice a reality.