Justice Minister warns work to ensure victims know ‘the law has their back’ could yet fall at the final hurdle
Justice Minister Naomi Long has described as “reckless and shameful” the threats to collapse Stormont that would see legislation aimed at protecting domestic and sexual abuse victims fall at the final hurdle.
The minister was speaking as a consultation on two strategies aimed at tackling domestic abuse and violence against women and girls was launched at Stormont.
Northern Ireland remains the only part of the UK without a specific strategy to protect women and girls from violence, and interested parties are being asked to give their views by March 7.
The First and Deputy First Ministers, Paul Givan and Michelle O’Neill, said addressing the issue would take a “combined effort”.
It comes as Sir Jeffrey Donaldson indicated he would pause a threat to collapse the Assembly as the party met with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.
Ms Truss had said she would not accept a deal which meant goods from Great Britain being checked as they enter Northern Ireland.
However, it remains unlikely that the EU will agree to any such deal that would scrap the Protocol in its entirety, which leaves the future of the institutions in doubt.
If the Executive does collapse, domestic abuse legislation in its final stages would not go on the books and be delayed until the next mandate after the May election.
Ms Long said: “If you have been a victim or are currently, knowing that the law has your back is absolutely critical and knowing that we have gone through all that work with our partners in the community sector, to have done all that preparatory work, to see all that fall would be absolutely shameful.
“All of those things for victims really matter.
“These are vulnerable people. We had three years when no progress was made to improve their lot, we’ve had two years when I’ve tried everything in my power to tweak out every bit of progress that I can.
“To see that fall back to square one essentially on those key pieces of legislation would be absolutely shameful and would of course have an impact on victims.”
There are plans for an Executive Domestic and Sexual Abuse Strategy, and the call for views will feed into that, while the PSNI is currently also developing a strategy following an increase in domestic abuse calls during lockdown.
The Alliance Party leader said: “Domestic abuse victims aren’t all women and girls — given the gendered nature and the overlap, we thought it would be good to do the call for views as one block.
“How do we tackle the attitudes the culture and all of the other misogyny and sexism that actually contribute to domestic abuse in society?
“No use us just picking up the pieces when people are already victims — we have to get in earlier and do more work up front.
“There’s a whole range of things. I‘ve been really clear as was Sir John Gillen (who carried out a review of the law on serious sexual offences here) that education in schools is woefully inadequate in dealing with these issues.
“It’s inconsistent and often not fact based and the result of that is you can have whole generations of people growing up without any real understanding of what healthy relationships look like.
“It’s also picking up on those signals, for example hyper sexualised behaviour from children and young people at an age where that wouldn’t be normal, intervening quickly in the behaviour people turned a blind eye to for many years in communities.
“It’s trying to capture that information so people can intervene. There may be occasions where someone is an abuser and has also grown up with a very distorted sense of what a healthy relationship looks like. Working with them can help them form better relationships as well as preventing damage to the person they are abusing.”
The minister says she wants to hear from people with “direct lived experience of abuse” as part of the appeal for views.
“We particularly want to reach groups that might otherwise not be heard, so people from the BAME community, people from the LGBTQ community, from men, and we want their voices to be heard too.
“We also want to capture the expert views of a lot of the organisations who work, day by day with their clients and try to pick up on the things we can do differently.
“I’ve certainly found over the last two years that my meetings with people who have been victims of abuse — whether that’s stalking or whether it’s sexual offences or whether it’s domestic violence — their views, their experiences both of the system and of their abuse have really informed how we have formed legislation and policy.”
The Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill, which will see coercive control becoming a crime in Northern Ireland for the first time, is due to be completed in February but may be slightly delayed by Covid staffing issues.
Other pieces of legislation — including a committal reform bill that will do away with the need for victims to give evidence at a pre-trial hearing, and a bill that will put the offence of stalking on the statute — are also in their final stages, along with legislation that will outlaw rough sex as a defence for murder.
The legislation will also remove outdated terms such as “child pornography” from legislation.
Ms Long said there “is genuine concern” that the Assembly will collapse.
“First of all concern in terms of the voluntary sector departments we work with on this, the stalking and justice bills that are coming through, both contain legislation that is life changing for people who are really vulnerable victims,” she said.
“I want this done now so people have access to the law and support services that they need.
“In the last 12 months, from November 2020 to October 2021, there were eight homicides with a domestic motivation compared to 10 in the previous period.
“That’s a really significant number of people who have lost their lives as a result of violence.
“What we want to do is go as far upstream as possible to stop that happening.”
Anyone wishing to participate in the call for views can access the consultation at www.justice-ni.gov.uk/consultations/call-views or email CallforViews@justice-ni.gov.uk for more information.