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Special courts to hear domestic abuse cases are now step closer

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Northern Ireland is "dragging behind" the rest of the UK on dealing with domestic violence, it has been warned. Picture posed

Northern Ireland is "dragging behind" the rest of the UK on dealing with domestic violence, it has been warned. Picture posed

Northern Ireland is "dragging behind" the rest of the UK on dealing with domestic violence, it has been warned. Picture posed

Specialist courts for domestic violence crimes could soon be running across Northern Ireland in a bid to encourage more victims to come forward.

The courts would provide greater support for victims of domestic abuse who feel frightened or intimidated by the prospect of facing their abuser.

Police respond to a domestic abuse incident every 19 minutes, but only a small percentage of cases end up in court because of victims' reluctance to follow through with a prosecution.

However, a pilot scheme which was launched in Londonderry Magistrates Court in November 2011 is believed to be one of the reasons for an increase in the number of victims in the district participating in contested cases.

District Judge Barney McElholm previously told the Belfast Telegraph: "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."

A review of the scheme has recommended that the measures and initiatives are introduced in other courts, Justice Minister David Ford has revealed.

He said that his department and the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service are now considering the potential for extending the use of these listing arrangements to other areas.

Mr Ford also revealed that he had asked his officials to look at the potential development of the arrangements at Derry Magistrates Court.

"This is great news. It is a step forward. I have been making representations to the PSNI and David Ford to make sure that there are no cutbacks when it comes to tackling domestic violence," said the SDLP's Dolores Kelly.

The move follows a recent campaign by the Belfast Telegraph for the introduction of a number of measures, including special domestic violence courts, to tackle abuse. Our End The Violence campaign identified five main gaps in the system:

  • The need for specialised domestic violence courts across Northern Ireland to encourage more victims to take legal action.
  • The lack of a legal requirement here similar to Clare's Law in England and Wales, which lets people find out from police if their partner has a history of domestic violence.
  • The current inability to apply prevention orders to violent offenders, which would allow police to prohibit an abuser from engaging in activities such as drinking alcohol.
  • The lack of a law banning the exercise of 'coercive control' over a partner. Such a law would allow police to prosecute cases of psychological and emotional abuse.
  • The need for new ways to prosecute abusers who use fear, intimidation or control to persuade partners not to give evidence against them.

Factfile

The courts would mean that specially trained prosecutors can be allocated to victims, while Women's Aid and other support workers can provide extra support.

A separate entrance would be provided for victims to avoid them having to come into contact with defendants or defence witnesses.

A special measures room would also be made available for the victim to give evidence via video-link if they are too afraid of being in the same room as the defendant.

Belfast Telegraph