Belfast Telegraph

A better way for courts to help victims of domestic violence

By Alastair Ross

Domestic violence is an all too prevalent issue in our society, affecting mainly, although not exclusively, close to one million women in the UK every year and having a long-lasting impact on the victims as well as their familial relationships and children.

Evidence also suggests that more than any other crime, victims of domestic violence are more likely to have been repeatedly victimised during their justice journey. Police statistics would suggest that they respond, on average, to an incident of domestic violence every 30 seconds, but the fact remains that domestic violence remains under-reported and hidden because victims can be too afraid to come forward.

One of the most disturbing aspects of domestic violence is the relatively low levels of prosecutions and convictions and the high number of victim statements that are withdrawn before a case makes it to trial. If we are serious about tackling domestic violence, this must change.

Over the past year, I have sought to unlock the potential for innovative models of delivering justice and spoken about the potential of problem-solving courts as a means by which we can deal with those difficult cases when social and legal issues merge. Domestic violence courts sit within this family.

The model allows for better co-ordination of cases, greater levels of support for victims from the moment a complaint is made through the courts process and, crucially, judges with specialisms in the area.

Three weeks ago, I visited Londonderry courthouse, where a pilot is being undertaken by one of the judges who runs a court that exclusively lists domestic violence cases. While it may not be a fully-fledged domestic violence court in the mould of those that operate successfully elsewhere, it is nevertheless a first step at doing things differently and is attempting to create a new model that delivers better outcomes.

I would hope that the Department for Justice will work alongside the judiciary and charities to expand and enhance the domestic violence court in Londonderry and embrace the problem-solving model of justice in order to deal with difficult issues such as domestic violence.

Alastair Ross MLA is chairman of the Stormont justice committee

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