‘Specialist domestic violence courts: how special are they?’ Dame Vera Baird QC unravelled this complex topic for South Lancashire’s Soroptimists at the Region’s Programme Action meeting.
Dame Vera – a Soroptimist herself (in Newcastle) – explained how volunteer court observers, trained by the Crown Prosecution Service, observed 170 cases in Northumbria. Despite being the focus of multi-agency work, impartial observations in the court system are not routine. Therefore this project, undertaken by local Soroptimists, was ground-breaking.
Using a simple questionnaire proforma the observers made notes as each case progressed. Factors included the existence/lack of practical safeguards for the victim in the court; the presence/absence of independent advisors to aid victims; guilty/not guilty plea ratios; and evidence of training of non-specialist magistrates.
Over 90% of victims of domestic violence are women. The resulting report from the Soroptimists identified significant gaps in the current system, and made recommendations for improvement. This impartial observation process is replicable anywhere: Dame Vera commended it as a possibility in South Lancashire.
Dame Vera was, until recently, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria. Much of her career in the law and politics has centred on women and equality. This domestic violence project, with Soroptimists acting as her ‘eyes and ears’, was her initiative. In her new role as Victims’ Commissioner she will continue to champion the voice of victims and witnesses.