New domestic abuse powers ‘better reflect experience of victims’

Extending laws under Scotland’s domestic abuse legislation to include emotional and psychological abuse was a “significant step-change” in better reflecting victims’ experiences, according to new research.

Jan 10, 2023
By Paul Jacques
Picture: University of Bristol

By recognising abuse as a pattern of behaviour, the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 closer matches victims’ accounts of psychological and physical harm over time, according to three small-scale research studies from Glasgow Caledonian University, the University of Edinburgh and the Scottish government.

Responses from 69 domestic abuse victims and witnesses also found most women felt that engaging with the criminal justice system on domestic abuse was “the right decision” to take.

However, respondents also said improvements could be made to how such cases are handled to provide victims with a greater voice in proceedings and better support through the process.

Other areas of improvement included making judicial processes quicker and more efficient and providing better training for justice professionals.

The Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 was passed by Parliament on February 1, 2018, and was brought into force in April 2019.

Latest figures show that between April 2019, when the Act came into force, and the end of March 2021, there were a total of 672 domestic abuse proceedings of which 595 (89 per cent) resulted in convictions.

Police Scotland Assistant Chief Constable Bex Smith said: “This legislation was a significant step-change in how Scotland’s criminal justice system deals with the full range of abusive behaviour.

“Every officer in our service has been trained, and new recruits are trained, to identify these behaviours and to apply Domestic Abuse Scotland Act.

“Every instance of domestic abuse is unique and we seek to tailor our response to the needs of the victims, including children who often witness abuse.

“We know we don’t always get it right, but we are listening and we recognise how crucial hearing the experience of victims is in helping us improve our response and deliver a service that meets their needs.”

One of the report authors, Claire Houghton from the University of Edinburgh said it was “reassuring” that victims and witnesses welcomed the expanded scope of the domestic abuse law.

“However, our study found that it has yet to reach its potential – adult and child victims and witnesses are still experiencing trauma and delays within the justice system and perpetrators are not adequately held to account for the harm to the whole family,” she added.

“We look forward to working with our justice partners, alongside victims and witnesses of domestic abuse, to improve people’s experiences of the system and support the vital work of specialist agencies.”

Scottish Justice Secretary Keith Brown said: “I know it takes incredible courage for those who suffer domestic abuse to come forward and I am grateful to everyone who took part in this research.

“We are committed to putting victims at the heart of Scotland’s justice system and the purpose of this work is to use their experiences to make improvements for all.

“I am absolutely resolute that we must treat all domestic abuse victims appropriately and with compassion – the vast majority of whom are women.

“We are already making significant improvements and it is very encouraging that this report found our new laws have better reflected victims’ experiences.

“Given that domestic abuse is an under-reported and often hidden crime, it is also very positive that women who suffered such crimes reported that their engagement with the justice system was the right thing to do.”

In February last year, the Scottish government published its ‘Vision for Justice’, which set out that urgent action was required to ensure women and children are better served by Scotland’s justice system. Measures that have already been taken include:

  • Increasing use of Police Scotland’s Disclosure Scheme for Domestic Abuse, helping to safeguard more people who have been harmed or are at risk;
  • Establishing a Victim-Centred Approach Fund, awarding £48 million to provide practical and emotional support to victims, including £18.5 million for specialist advocacy support for survivors of gender-based violence;
  • Establishing a £53.2 million Justice Recovery Fund, including £26.5 million for courts, helping reduce the case backlog by 13,000 between January and November 2022; and
  • Funding the Caledonian System, a programme that seeks to change the behaviour of domestically abusive men.

The Scottish government also intends to introduce a Criminal Justice Reform Bill this year to bring forward recommendations from Lady Dorrian’s review on improving the management of sexual offence cases – including introducing a statutory right to anonymity for victims of sexual offences. The Bill will also abolish the ‘not proven’ verdict.

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