Inside Justice: Police stance on domestic abuse should be applauded, says Chris Marshall

Former Scottish secretary Baroness Helen Liddell has been appointed to chair an independent review group set up to ensure the Catholic Church in Scotland implements recommendations made in a report into allegations of abuse.

Former Scottish secretary Baroness Helen Liddell has been appointed to chair an independent review group set up to ensure the Catholic Church in Scotland implements recommendations made in a report into allegations of abuse.

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A married couple are having an argument when one of their neighbours, worried by the sound of raised voices, calls the police.

The officers arrive and despite failing to establish any evidence a criminal act has taken place, lead away the husband or wife – perhaps both – in handcuffs.

That’s the scenario described by the Scottish Police Federation (SPF) which last week warned MSPs that a national focus on domestic abuse has left individual officers unable to use their own professional judgment over whether a crime has been committed.

The SPF said this loss of discretion has left Scotland’s courts overburdened with flimsy domestic abuse cases which have little chance of ending in a conviction.

Police Scotland estimates that around 20 per cent of its time is spent tackling domestic incidents – with a call received every nine minutes.

The issue is particularly pertinent at this time of year which traditionally sees a spike in incidents over the festive period.

Yesterday it was the force’s turn to appear before MSPs on the justice committee.

Assistant Chief Constable Bernie Higgins said his officers had dealt with 58,000 domestic incidents in 2015/16, with 29,000 recorded as being criminal, resulting in 34,000 charges being brought.

Mr Higgins said 80 per cent of those 34,000 charges resulted in a conviction, a statistic he used to defend Police Scotland’s approach.

He said just 2.5 per cent of cases reported by the police to the Crown Office were not proceeded with by prosecutors.

For its part, the SPF points to the number of cases which do not lead to a successful prosecution and says many people are being held in custody, sometimes over the weekend, just for the case to be dropped at a later date.

But while the SPF is quite right to highlight an issue which is causing difficulties for its members, its argument misses a wider point about the nature of domestic violence.

Just because a case doesn’t end in a successful prosecution doesn’t mean there wasn’t a good reason for the police intervening in the first place. The difficulty is when that leads to those who have not committed a crime being held in custody and when prosecutors are feeling pressured to bring cases to court just for the sake of it.

There are plenty of sticks with which to beat Police Scotland, but on the issue of domestic abuse the force has genuinely made great strides.

While acknowledging it still has a way to go, Marsha Scott, of Scottish Women’s Aid, has described Police Scotland as being “world-leading” when it comes to tackling the issue.

Police and prosecutors have both afforded domestic abuse a priority which it sadly did not have in years gone by.

That is a situation likely to be bolstered yet further by a new specific offence of domestic abuse which is being brought forward by the Scottish Government and will criminalise psychological abuse and coercive control.

Unfortunately, however, the higher priority given to domestic abuse has come at a time of huge financial challenge for the police service.

Mr Higgins yesterday told MSPs that his force’s policing of domestic abuse is “appropriate and proportionate”.

Many of his own officers appear not to agree: Police Scotland must find a way of changing their minds.

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