Judge slams 'woeful' sentencing powers in Northern Ireland domestic abuse cases
A District Judge has blasted the type of sentence he is restricted to handing down for domestic violence cases involving choking as "woefully inadequate".
Barney McElholm voiced his disgust at the current laws - which date back to 1861 - yesterday at Londonderry Magistrates Court after sentencing a man who had grabbed his then partner by the throat during a violent attack.
He sentenced Aaron James McCullough (27), a chef formerly of Lower Clarendon Street but now with an address in Bangor, to a five-month jail sentence, suspended for three years, but said he should have the powers to be able to issue longer sentences.
"If this was in the USA he would be going to jail for a minimum of 15 years for choking this lady. There is quite an unacceptable gap in our legislation with regard to these offences," the judge told the court.
"Choking is prosecuted as an assault, and that is woefully inadequate and it only exists in legislation in some obscure reference in the 1861 Offences Against The Person Act. The maximum sentence is six months, which is wholly inadequate and inappropriate.
"The time has long passed when specific offences like this which involve choking, smothering and strangulation should be brought as indictable-only offences."
Jan Melia, the CEO of Women's Aid Federation Northern Ireland, welcomed the comments by Judge McElholm, and described it as shocking that the courts were forced to treat this kind of crime as mere assault.
In May it emerged that the PSNI had dealt with a record high 30,000 reports of domestic abuse in the past year.
Ms Melia described non-fatal strangulation as extremely serious. "If an abuser chokes or smothers his victim, it is very likely that he will go on to cause further serious harm to that victim," she told the Belfast Telegraph. "It has also been proven that non-fatal strangulation is a strong predictor of future domestic homicide. Given that two women per week are killed by a male partner or ex-partner in the UK, it is shocking that the courts are forced to treat this kind of crime as mere assault." She added that the victims of domestic abuse were automatically categorised as at high risk if they have been strangled, choked or smothered.
"We already recognise the seriousness of non-fatal strangulation when risk assessing victims of domestic violence and their children," she said.
"If a woman was to report that her abuser had strangled, choked or smothered her at any time, she is automatically designated as a high-risk victim and is referred to a multi-agency risk assessment conference, so that extra measures can be taken to ensure her safety.
"It is therefore high time that sentencing for this type of crime is reviewed so that it reflects its severity and danger posed to victims."
McCullough admitted assaulting his ex-partner in their flat in the city on March 14 this year.
He admitted spitting in his partner's face, throwing her to the floor, pulling her hair and grabbing her by the throat.
A prosecution solicitor told the court that the victim arrived at Strand Road Police Station at 1.45 am on March 14 in a highly distressed condition. She said minutes earlier the defendant had returned from a night's drinking and kept banging on the flat doors. She got out of bed and reprimanded him for his behaviour. An argument then took place during which McCullough shouted "I am going to end you".
Defence barrister Stephen Chapman said that McCullough, who has no previous convictions, apologised for his behaviour.
"He made a terrible mistake this night and he has resolved not to do it again," he said.
Mr McElholm also imposed a restraining order for a five-year duration.
Anyone who affected by the issues raised in this article can contact the 24 Hour Domestic & Sexual Violence Helpline on 0808 802 1414 (freephone). It is open to all women and men affected by domestic or sexual violence.