Belfast Telegraph

Persuading the victims of domestic abuse to take a stand for justice

By Deborah McAleese

Four out of 11 cases at Northern Ireland's only specialised domestic violence court collapsed this week because the victims failed to give evidence.

The alleged abusers faced numerous charges including common assault, criminal damage or breach of non-molestation orders.

But the cases were either dismissed or adjourned when the alleged female victims did not turn up to court, or withdrew their statements.

A reluctance by many domestic violence victims to pursue their abusers through the courts is a major concern for the judiciary and police.

As the Belfast Telegraph continues its End The Silence series to raise awareness of domestic abuse issues in Northern Ireland, District Judge Barney McElholm warned that victims of domestic abuse were "much less likely to attend court to give evidence against the alleged perpetrator than other victims".

Women's Aid has called for the police, Public Prosecution Service (PPS) and the judiciary to pursue prosecutions without evidence from the injured party.

Mr McElholm, who presides over the domestic abuse cases in Londonderry, said it was "very disappointing" when prosecutions fall because an injured party no longer wished to participate in the criminal justice system.

"What is very unsatisfactory is when four cases collapse because the injured party does not come to court. In a lot of these cases the only real evidence is the evidence of the injured party. It is difficult to envisage 'victimless' prosecutions," said Mr McElholm.

He added: "Ideally, what we want is where someone makes a complaint and they are then prepared to pursue that through to the hearing.

"But I do think we have to be innovative and look at things in a different way, for example, when it comes to looking at coercive control. Just because we have done things one way for a long time we cannot accept that is the only way."

While cases have collapsed due to lack of evidence from victims, Mr McElholm said he believed that the specialised domestic abuse court had begun to encourage more victims to follow through with their complaint.

"The whole point of what we are trying to achieve is to get victims to come to court and give evidence. For us, the success is getting cases heard at contest or the defendant pleads guilty," he said.

Head of the PSNI's Public Protection Unit, Chief Superintendent George Clarke, said that while more victims were reporting domestic abuse, there had been a slight drop in prosecutions.

Mr Clarke said it was extremely difficult to prosecute when a victim was adamant they didn't want to co-operate.

"Domestic abusers are violent criminals. If a victim withdraws from the criminal justice system we have to consider victimless prosecutions and we are doing some work with the PPS around that and some work in Derry with the use of body-worn cameras. But if a victim comes in and is not prepared in any way to co-operate, it is going to be extremely difficult to prosecute the person who has hurt them," he said.

Mr Clarke said that consideration had to be given as to why the victim didn't want to co-operate.

"Is it through fear, is it through coercive control, or is it on the basis of a fully informed and freely made decision?

"As police officers, our drive will be to prosecute violent criminals for violent crimes. But, at the same time, we have to be sensitive to the needs of the victim who, fully informed, says they do not want to pursue a conviction.

"I would love to see more victimless prosecutions. I want to be in a position where someone accused of a serious crime is prosecuted. But victimless prosecutions are an extremely complex area. We need to see how the body cameras work, but it is not a silver bullet. You have to be clever in investigations too.

"But we are determined to constantly explore with the PPS, Women's Aid, multi-agency public protection arrangements, Rainbow and our own colleagues in England and Wales, other ways to prosecute people."

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