Unique court where injured party is left feeling at ease
The frenzy and commotion that is so often present within a normal Magistrates Court was noticeably absent. Also absent were the intimidating rows of defendants waiting in the public gallery for their cases to be heard.
Support workers could be seen actively liaising with the police and prosecutors on behalf of victims, who were sitting safely in a comfortable area in a building across the road provided by Victim Support's Foyle Witness Service.
This is Northern Ireland's only special listings court for domestic violence cases, and it is believed to be one of the reasons for an increase in the number of victims participating in contested cases.
On the court list within Londonderry Courthouse this week were 11 cases that included assault occasioning actual bodily harm, common assault, criminal damage, sexual assault and breach of non-molestation orders.
The cases that were dealt with included:
- A 30-year-old man, Samuel Gerard Finlay, of Elmwood Street, Derry, received a three-month suspended sentence for grabbing his girlfriend by the throat. He also received a four-month suspended sentence for punching his girlfriend's 15-year-old daughter in the head when she came to her mother's aid during a row.
- A 37-year-old man, Daniel Neil Lynch, from St Johnston, Donegal, received a four-month suspended prison sentence for assaulting his partner in February.
- A trainee teacher, Anne Marie Brown (37), and her partner Krystian Milejski (30), were found guilty of assaulting her brother's girlfriend during a family row after the Fleadh in Derry in August last year.
Brown received a conditional discharge for the assault and for assaulting her brother on the same occasion. Milejski was fined £200. They are appealing the convictions.
The special listings court was launched in November 2011 as a pilot scheme. The District Judge who presides over the court, Barney McElholm, said that the aim of the court was to ensure that "victims feel safe, secure and therefore confident to attend court and give evidence".
With all domestic abuse cases listed for the one court sitting, it means specially trained prosecutors can be allocated, while Women's Aid and other support workers can provide support for victims.
The Court Service provides a separate entrance for victims, to avoid them having to come into contact with defendants or defence witnesses.
A special measures room is also available for the victim to give evidence via video-link if they are too afraid of being in the same room as the defendant.
Domestic abuse is becoming more and more of a societal problem.
"Steps had to be taken to encourage more victims to come forward and give evidence before a court," said Mr McElholm.
"This pilot is a first step towards creating a more victim-friendly court environment for those who have experienced domestic abuse.
"The major benefit in this is giving victims the confidence and opportunity to confront the perpetrator and force them to face up to their abusive behaviour.
"This is achieved by providing a mixed package of support - practical, emotional and legal."
Mr McElholm added: "It is still very early, but statistics show some improvement in the percentage of victims who are participating in contested hearings."
He also said that he would like to see similar measures adopted in appropriate areas across Northern Ireland where the volume of domestic abuse work justifies it.
If you are a man or a woman affected by domestic and sexual violence, support is available by contacting the 24-hour Domestic & Sexual Violence Helpline on 0808 802 1414