CONVICTIONS involving domestic violence have risen sharply as the recession, unemployment and money stresses lead to tensions in Scottish homes.
More than 7,000 people suffered violence at the hands of partners and relatives in 2008-9, up by almost 1,500 over the previous year.
Edinburgh Women's Aid warned official statistics were only starting to catch up with the true picture, as more victims are being encouraged to testify against partners and relatives.
Peter Lockhart, a member of the Law Society of Scotland's criminal law committee, has witnessed a rise in domestic abuse cases and believes the recession is partly to blame.
"I think there has definitely been a rise," he said. "I was on duty today at Ayr Sheriff Court. Today was not exceptional and 30 to 35 per cent of cases related to domestic matters.
"Undoubtedly, certain crimes do tend to increase during times of recession - domestic violence would be one of them. People lose their jobs, finances become stretched, and that can cause tension in a relationship."
Professor Liz Gilchrist, an expert in forensic psychology at Glasgow Caledonian University, said: "Research suggests a link between economic stress and domestic violence. More time at home and exposure to one another can increase the possibility. It just means the opportunity to offend is greater."
The Scottish Parliament, which released the new figures, said part of the rise was due to changes and improvements in police recording of domestic abuse. For example, someone sending abusive texts or phone messages are now being charged with harassment or - following the introduction of the Criminal Justice and Licensing Bill - stalking, instead of a breach of the Communications Act.
Support services say victims are now more confident about coming forward.
Michelle Corcoran, manager of Edinburgh Women's Aid, said: "The number of women coming to us has always been high. It's just now that they are also approaching other agencies, so the full extent of the problem is coming into the public view.
"I think the domestic abuse court in Glasgow has also helped and now we need more like it around the country. Women have greater faith in it because they know charges are more likely to be dealt with as domestic abuse, rather than breach of the peace, and people found guilty receive tougher penalties."
However, both Labour and the Conservatives have criticised the presumption against sentences of less than three months, which is also part of the Criminal Justice and Licensing Act. It means some offenders who would otherwise have had a short spell in prison will instead return home - in many instances to the scene of the crime and to their victim. Richard Baker, Scottish Labour's justice spokesman, said: "I accept the fact the offence may now be more accurately recorded. Nevertheless this a sizeable increase in these types of crime.
A rise of 1,500 does indicate an increase in offending and there can be no room for complacency. We must take further action to crack down on domestic abuse."
John Lamont, justice spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives, said: "I think these figures simply confirm why we took the position we did on short-term sentencing. These figures show a worrying trend that the Scottish Government must address and abolishing short-term sentencing is not the way to do it.
"Very often these sentences would give the victims some respite and the time to make decisions about their future and the Scottish Government has effectively removed this as option for the courts."
A Scottish Government spokesman said: "Increasing numbers of victims are having the confidence to report these crimes and our law enforcement agencies are punishing those who do wrong.
"Domestic abuse is unacceptable and the Scottish Government is continuing to work with key partners to bring an end to this despicable crime."x