ASB CASEWORK: BUILDING A STRONG FOUNDATION
Recently, I was invited to speak at a conference arranged by Frontline Resolution and supported by The Noise App. The theme of the day was using the ASB toolkit and there was an impressive mix of delegates in attendance, including ASB, housing and police officers.
When invited to deliver a session, there was already a number of speakers booked, who were covering topics such as the closure order, the injunction and committal proceedings and the absolute ground for possession. When given free rein to decide what I wanted to speak about, I asked whether I could kick off the event and if my session could go back to basics.
This request was initially met with some confusion; after all, why would you want to start with a foundation topic when the rest of the day is much more technical? My answer was very simple: if we don’t have a strong basis of ASB and civil law knowledge underpinning everything we do as practitioners, then what we layer on top is going to be a challenge. A strong foundation ensures that we act quickly and decisively, taking the most appropriate tool and putting together the strongest cases that, in turn, cost us the least amount of money.
As a consultant, I have the pleasure of working with a number of different organisations. This has allowed me to identify some key areas of challenge. I want to share these so that others can self-assess themselves and understand whether any changes to practice need to be considered.
Issue 1: Not understanding what ASB is
Defining ASB is a challenge for many reasons; there are many different definitions in the ASB, Crime and Policing Act 2014 and all of them are subjective, based on how the behaviour makes someone feel. As we know, different people have different levels of tolerance and perception, and we therefore very often have to apply a reasonableness test to whether something is ASB, based on frequency, severity, circumstance and harm. It is impossible to create an exhaustive list of things that won’t be considered ASB – something that seems obvious, like a neighbour doing DIY, could well amount to ASB if it is happening at unsociable times or duration.
Without a clear stance on how a decision is reached about whether something is ASB, an organisation will create challenges for themselves. Staff will be likely to open cases on reports that are not ASB, resulting in a case that is open for a prolonged period of time, costing money and raising the expectation of the complainant of an outcome, when in reality there is nothing that can be done.
I encourage all organisations to be clear in their policy about the types of behaviour that are unlikely to be considered ASB and the harm-centred approach that will be taken to make the decision. Staff should be given training in this area as part of their induction. There also has to be confidence that when the officers are explaining that something is not ASB, the organisation will back them in this, should a complaint be made.
Issue 2: The approach to dealing with neighbour disputes
Before I continue, I need to be clear what I mean by a neighbour dispute as different people may have different interpretations. For me, it is where a number of parties (most often two) do not get along for very petty reasons. There is no clear victim or perpetrator, with both sides causing issue and making complaints against the other.
I say with absolute certainty that nothing is likely to take more time and cost more money than dealing with a neighbour dispute. It becomes very difficult to see the woods from the trees, and an officer can often be left not knowing what to do for the best.
An organisation has to be firm about their approach to neighbour disputes. Is the role of an ASB team to deal with a situation where two people do not get along?
I would encourage consideration of the following points when a neighbour dispute is reported:
- Is it something that the team should be dealing with at all?
- If there is risk of escalation to more serious ASB, should mediation be considered?
- Are other people being affected? For example, is the behaviour occurring in public causing or likely to cause nuisance or annoyance to others? In this scenario, the victims are actually the wider community, and action may be required against the parties engaged in the dispute.
Issue 3: Not understanding the civil standard of proof in practice
Most practitioners will have heard of the civil standard of proof (the balance of probabilities); most will understand that this is a lower threshold that the criminal standard. In reality, however, I still see many, many cases where there is enough evidence to take action but the officer makes the decision to the contrary, not recognising that the threshold has been met.
Whilst we want to make our cases as strong as possible, and thorough investigations should always be completed, if we constantly strive for enough evidence to prove the criminal standard then there will be many situations that remain unresolved.
It is vitally important the officers dealing with ASB undertake the civil standard of proof and recognise how to apply it in practice.
Issue 4: Thinking that an NFA means it didn’t happen
NFA means ‘no further action’ and is a term used by the police where a decision has been made not to prosecute someone for a criminal offence. Some ASB/housing teams see an NFA outcome as absolute reason for why they cannot take action in a case. This, however, is not necessarily true.
NFA does not mean that the crime has not happened; it means that there is not enough evidence to prove that it has happened to the criminal standard of proof (beyond all reasonable doubt). We know from above that the standard for civil matters (ASB and housing actions) is the civil standard.
Practitioners should always find out why something has been NFA’d. It may be that the accused has provided absolute evidence that it was not them (e.g. proof they were out of the country), but it may be a matter that there is not enough evidence to prove to the criminal standard. In the latter example, it may be that the civil threshold can be satisfied and action through these means can still be taken.
Issue 5: Missing windows of opportunity
I am sometimes asked to review case files. This usually happens when a case has been ongoing for a long time, often repeatedly opened and closed without long-term resolution. Almost without exception, when I look at these files I will identify lots of missed opportunities to take action. This may be because of the officer not realising they have enough evidence to take action (see above) or where they have not recognised that the incident satisfies the threshold for taking urgent legal action, such as applying for a without notice injunction or using the closure order (if a local authority or police force).
It is really important that officers understand what constitutes serious ASB and the legal options that are available in these circumstances. Whilst it might seem costly to seek legal action, it can often be far cheaper than a case remaining open for many months or even years, without resolution.
As ASB practitioners, we are asked to be any numbers of things: police officer, social worker, support worker, teacher and parent. We are expected to deal with ASB in its truest sense, along with drug issues, county lines, domestic abuse and exploitation. It is so important that we have a strong case management foundation that allows us to deal with these new areas of demand effectively.
I hope the above helps you to assess how your service measures up to these key areas of case management.
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This article was originally produced for RHE Global and appeared on their ASB Forum. The forum is free of charge and allows practitioners to securely share questions, best practice and documents. A free account can be created here: https://communities.riams.org/login