As few as 4% of men convicted of domestic violence are sent to prison while a clear majority escape with a fine, according to new Home Office figures published this week.
The official breakdown of sentences passed by specialist domestic violence courts show that there are more than one million victims of domestic violence - as much as five times higher than previously recognised.
The disclosure comes as ministers consider draft proposals from the Sentencing Guidelines Council which suggest that while domestic violence should be treated as seriously as any other violent offence, those men who are genuinely sorry for their domestic violence should have the chance of avoiding being sent to jail.
The courts may be urged to send offenders on an intensive domestic abuse programme run by the probation service, which consists of classes over 36 weeks, instead of going to jail.
The latest figures based on a small sample of cases in five specialist courts show that 29% of those convicted are sent on such programmes. Fifty-nine per cent are fined or ordered to pay compensation, 30% given a conditional discharge, 10% a community punishment order, and only 4% jailed.
A study of cases in a west London magistrates court showed a slightly different picture, with 43% of those convicted being fined, 12% given a conditional discharge, 32% on community rehabilitation orders, 6% on community punishment orders and 14% sent to jail.
A Home Office spokeswoman said the government had legislated to ensure that serious violent or sexual offenders were securely and properly dealt with. "In some cases this will mean that such offenders will spend longer in prison and in some cases be detained indefinitely. We are crystal clear that there will always be a prison space for serious and dangerous offenders." She added that domestic violence covered a wide range of offences, from murder to common assault, and the key issue was having a range of sentences which were appropriate to the crime.
One reason why so few perpetrators of domestic violence go to prison is that the courts cannot pass sentence on the basis that the violence has happened frequently where the other incidents were not reported or charged or have not been proved or admitted.
Home Office research shows that on average a woman endures 35 incidents of domestic abuse before making a complaint to the police.
Criminologists say that some victims see it as a private family matter to be kept within the home, or they fear that police involvement will make the situation worse. The Home Office is running an advertising campaign aimed at family and friends as well as victims in an attempt to encourage earlier reporting of domestic violence cases.
The 2003 Criminal Justice Act also provided a greater opportunity for the prosecution to draw attention to previous unreported violent incidents as evidence of the defendant's character. But it has yet to be seen how widely this will be used in the courts.
Criminologists say the most accurate estimate of the extent of domestic violence comes from a British Crime Survey self-completion study of the issue involving a nationally representative sample of 22,463 people. It defined domestic violence as abuse, threats or force of a non-sexual form, and shows that 26% of women and 17% of men have experienced at least one incident of domestic violence since they were 16.
The annual BCS estimate says that there were about 401,000 incidents of domestic abuse in 2004-05. However, the special BCS study points at more than a million victims each year, with 15.4m incidents involving threats or force happening each year in England and Wales. Researchers say the number would be even greater if the many sexual assaults that take place within the home were also included.
Although the special study used a different method of calculation which makes comparisons inappropriate, the researchers estimate that the underlying rate of domestic violence is at least five times higher than that disclosed by the annual BCS survey.
It found that 15% of women say they have suffered being pushed, held down or slapped.
A wide range of behaviour is now officially recognised as domestic violence, including non-physical forms such as criticism, pressure tactics, belittling, breaking trust, oppressive control of finances and harassment.
Violent domestic incidents can lead to death, with half of all female murder victims being killed by their partners or ex-partners.
Unlike other forms of violence, domestic violence is rarely a one-off incident. Those who suffered domestic violence told the BCS study that they faced an average of 20 incidents a year, 16 of them involving force being used. In a third of cases the violence started during pregnancy, and if the man had already been abusive, the pregnancy often escalated the violence involved.