Watchdog body ‘disappointed’ at progress to improve handling of domestic violence and abuse cases

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The chief inspector of criminal justice in Northern Ireland says she's disappointed at the lack of progress in changing how domestic abuse cases are handled. 

It comes after a follow up review into the ‘No Excuse’ report two years ago was published highlighting that only one recommendation has been achieved. 

Another four have been partially implemented since 2019 with no movement on two others. 

Jacqui Durkin says it isn’t good enough especially as new stats show police were called to incidents every 16 minutes during the pandemic. 

Ms Durkin said: “I am disappointed with the pace of progress and that key recommendations to implement an advocacy service to support victims of domestic violence and abuse and establish regional domestic violence and abuse courts remained outstanding,” said Ms Durkin.

“Domestic violence and abuse is a long standing problem throughout our community that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic with many new and repeat victims finding their homes are not a safe place, but a place of fear and anxiety during the lockdown restrictions,” said the Chief Inspector.

“While incidents of crime fell overall as people across Northern Ireland followed the COVID-19 ‘stay at home’ public health message, figures from 2019-20 and during the period of lockdown and restrictions from March until August 2020, showed a rise in domestic violence and abuse with Police Officers called to respond to a domestic incident every 16 minutes.”

In June 2019, when Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJI) published its No Excuse inspection report, Inspectors recommended that a properly costed, independent domestic violence advocacy service to support victims of these traumatic crimes should be introduced within nine months.

They also recommended that, where sufficient numbers of cases existed, a designated domestic violence and abuse court should be introduced in each Court Division – similar to the arrangement already operating in Londonderry Magistrates’ Court.

“When Inspectors returned to assess progress in late 2020, they found the tender for the independent advocacy service was not issued by the Department of Justice (DoJ) until December 2020, and the service would not be operational until September 2021,” said Ms Durkin.

“We were also concerned to see that estimated costs meant the specification for the long-awaited advocacy service would not offer victims the single-point of contact and seamless support service envisaged by stakeholders and Inspectors, at all stages of the criminal justice system journey.”

Work to establish a domestic violence and abuse court in Belfast was also paused because of the COVID-19 pandemic and a pilot scheme will not commence until October or November 2021. 

The Chief Inspector also expressed concerns about the low numbers of cases being referred to the Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conference (MARAC), where information is shared between the police, health and social services, probation and child protection representatives to protect adults and children.

“We found the volumes of cases being referred to MARAC were less than half the recommended levels and numbers were reducing. The reasons for this need to be understood and action taken to address it as a priority,” she said.  

However, Ms Durkin acknowledged that progress was made in other areas with Inspectors finding evidence that the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland had improved how they shared information and worked together as a prosecution team.

“We recognise and welcome the collaborative work undertaken by the PSNI-led Domestic Abuse Independent Advisory Group, to respond swiftly to the urgent need for rising numbers of victims of domestic violence and abuse to access services and support as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.  This work demonstrates the benefit of having effective partnerships in place that transcend organisational boundaries,” she said.

“I would also commend the DoJ on the passage of the Bill through the Northern Ireland Assembly and creation of the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act (Northern Ireland) 2021 that received Royal Assent on 1 March 2021,” said the Chief Inspector.

“This is a significant achievement and welcome development which will enable greater protection and support for victims of domestic violence and abuse including those children witnessing it and impacted by it in their homes.

“The challenge going forward for the criminal justice system will be the effective implementation of the Act and delivery of better services and outcomes for victims and their families,” she continued.

Reflecting on the findings of the Follow-up Review Ms Durkin said criminal justice organisations and the DoJ needed to focus taking forward all outstanding inspection recommendations.

“The recommendations made in the 2019 No Excuse report aimed to improve the criminal justice system’s response and deliver better outcomes for victims of domestic violence and abuse,” said the Chief Inspector.

“This work is more urgent than it ever was and the recommendations that still need to be implemented need action now – no excuse,” she concluded.

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