As part of an England-wide study, Lichfield & District Soroptimists, members of the global women’s volunteer organisation, are calling on their local MPs to press the Secretary of State for Justice to take urgent action to protect victims of domestic abuse seeking justice and to ensure that Specialist Domestic Abuse Courts (SDAC) do not add to their trauma.
Members of SI Lichfield & District spent more than 300 hours taking part in the observational work in their local Courts and their findings are included in the recently-published report. This excludes another 100 hours spent by the Project Lead Christine Corless in collating material and contributing to the overall report process!
The lack of independent support to victims giving evidence in court, poor use of technology, inadequate implementation of domestic abuse training given to court officials and the need for a total review of the Victim Personal Statement (VPS) system were all identified by the independent observers as shortcomings in this court system. The report shows that a system which was established and developed over a five-year period in 1999, to provide specific support to the victims of domestic abuse is falling short of the service which the public has a right to expect. Local Project Lead Christine Corless said:
“Our work here has contributed to this independent review across England of how these courts should be improved for victims of abuse, the majority of whom are women. Soroptimists stand up as advocates for all women, especially for those who have no voice. Here in Lichfield & District we have worked as independent observers to give the public confidence in our courts, but we also want to drive improvement and our recommendations seek to help build public trust in our justice system. We urge the Ministry of Justice to take immediate action to improve the systems which we have identified to ensure a better experience and outcome for all victims of domestic abuse”.
A demonstration of citizen action
The latest project carried out by Soroptimists across England including here in Staffordshire involved 4,000 hours of volunteer time in observation and in excess of 1,000 questionnaires submitted in relation to observations made at over 30 courts. The recommendations made in the new report seek to improve the workings of this system with a particular emphasis on positive experiences and outcomes for the victims.
This report represents a rare example of members of the public taking responsibility for scrutinising avital public agency which is intended to serve them, citizen action of this kind is surely to be encouraged. What the 200 plus Soroptimists who took part, saw and what they recorded on a pro-forma questionnaire, now fully analysed and set out in this and previous reports, is vital information which is not available in any other way.
Only two examples of best practice
The qualitative and quantitative data presented here from courts across England provides a clear indication that the components required to deliver a Specialist Domestic Abuse Court are not always present. Best practice was only observed in two courts: Westminster SDAC and Nottingham Magistrates Court which employ a multi-agency approach to provide a more effective response to processing domestic abuse cases within the criminal justice system. In other regions, problems including the under availability of Independent Domestic Violence Advisors (IDVAs), the underapplication of special measures and the poorly equipped court facilities must be addressed to ensure that victims are protected and supported by the SDAC system.
Changes to policy not reflected in practice
Over the five years of the court observation initiative there have been notable changes to external factors which appear to have had limited impact on the challenges that victims face in seeking justice. The data gathered over this five year period reflects a disconnect between strategic and operational management, showing that changes to policy have made little difference in practice.
Domestic Abuse has been categorised as a national threat under the new strategic policing requirement. The Government has laid out promising plans to prioritise the prevention of Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) and to introduce tougher legislation on perpetrators who are convicted of Coercive and Controlling Behaviour (CCB), which for the first time will be put on a par with physical violence. However, this report provides further evidence of a pronounced gap between reported offences of coercive control and successful convictions.
Perpetrator interventions not being utilised
Proposed measures include new civil orders, digital tools for the early identification of dangerous perpetrators, and additional funding for both specialist victim support programmes and perpetrator behavioural interventions. The report shows that of the cases observed, the majority of sentences imposed were financial, and that perpetrator interventions were ordered in just 56 of 626 cases observed. Despite Government spending of £79 million since 2020 for domestic abuse perpetrator interventions, it is clear from these findings that these pathways to changing behaviour are not consistently enforced. These findings align with research which has shown less than 1% of perpetrators receive a specialist intervention to challenge or change their behaviour. Reasons for this include patchy service provision as well as an overall low rate of conviction for DA related crimes and a lack of identification of CCB in the courts.
Further research into survivors’ experiences of the SDAC system would be beneficial for ensuring a standardised model which best meets their needs. It is particularly concerning that the majority of victims in the cases observed did not receive advocacy from IDVAs, and that the safety of victims was not properly ensured both inside and outside the courts.
The full report is available online at https://sigbi.org/2023/specialist-domestic-abuse-courts