Demand for new model of legal aid to help domestic abuse victims

A new model of legal aid for women and children suffering domestic abuse is being drawn up by Scottish Women’s Aid to tackle “inadequate” services.

Scottish Women's Aid has said a new model of legal aid is needed for those suffering domestic abuse.

The charity, which supports 36 women’s aid organisations across Scotland, said that timely and easy access to legal aid was still “a dream” for most women seeking help.

It also claimed that, a year on from the introduction of the Scotland’s Domestic Abuse Act, there is “minimal use” of the child aggravation elements of the new law.

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The legislation, which was described as the “gold-standard” when it was passed, criminalised coercive and controlling behaviour towards a partner or ex-partner, and enabled prosecutions on charges of a course of abusive behaviour, including physical, sexual, verbal, financial and psychological abuse.

It also recognised the harmful impact of domestic abuse on children, and provided a mechanism for this to be recorded and reflected by the court in sentencing following a conviction.

However a year on, SWA chief executive, Dr Marsha Scott, said there was a “mixed picture” across Scotland but she admitted that “transforming Scotland’s criminal and civil justice systems was never going to be easy or quick.”

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She said: “Although we accept that proper functioning of the new law is a work in progress, some elements need attention sooner rather than later.

“We are worried about what appears to be minimal use of the child aggravation in application of the new law. The law identifies children as potential victims and offers courts an aggravation that allows for harsher sentences when children are involved.

“We are disappointed to note that relatively few courts have used this mechanism to sanction perpetrators. We continue to believe that domestic abuse is a parenting choice, and children are not just collateral damage that we acknowledge only when evidence that they have been harmed is easily identified.”

She added: “Another ongoing priority for Scottish Women’s Aid is the problem of adequate legal services for women and children experiencing domestic abuse. For too many affordable, timely access to abuse-competent legal services is just a dream.

“We are currently gathering evidence from across Scotland to make the case for a different model – one which prioritises the needs of women and children who have experienced abuse and makes sure they get the legal help they need, when they need it.

“We’re in the early stages of this work just now, but we think it goes hand in hand with making sure this world-leading law does what it needs to for those experiencing domestic abuse.

“We are working with colleagues in the Crown Office on this issue, and one of our top priorities going forward is to ensure that this aspect of the law is being used to its full potential to benefit children.”

Procurator Fiscal for Domestic Abuse, Anne Marie Hicks, said that prosecutors across Scotland had undergone “extensive training on the legislation” and that 829 cases had been prosecuted, although Police Scotland said nearly 1,700 offences have been recorded under new law.

Ms Hicks said the Crown Office was taking “a rigorous approach to crimes of domestic abuse and we are committed to prosecuting these crimes effectively”.

She added: “The new offence, introduced in April last year, takes account of the dynamics of abusive relationships and has allowed us to prosecute many coercive and controlling behaviours which can be so harmful to victims, but which were previously not criminal.

“Courts are now able to consider abusive courses of behaviour over a period of time, rather than just focussing on individual incidents. This better reflects the experiences of victims and children, and allows the totality of behaviour to be considered when sentencing.

“Prosecutors in Scotland will continue to work closely with Police Scotland and victim support agencies, to ensure that the prosecution of domestic abuse is as effective as possible and that victims are supported.”

The Lord Advocate also said today that domestic abuse cases would continue to be prosecuted vigorously and fairly during the coronavirus pandemic.

James Wolffe QC, said: “Our commitment to tackling domestic abuse remains firm, especially during this unprecedented time. With the public following government advice to stay at home in order to restrict the spread of coronavirus, we know that those experiencing domestic abuse may be more at risk.

“I want to reassure victims that public safety remains the priority for law enforcement during this period. It is vital that victims have the confidence in the justice system to come forward and report these crimes and also that they seek support from the many organisations which continue to provide essential services to victims.

“Prosecutors will continue to use all the tools at their disposal to prosecute domestic abuse, including the ground-breaking legislation which was introduced last year. I would strongly encourage anyone who has been a victim of such offending to report this to the police and to seek support.”

The Scottish Government also announced a £1.35m boost to Scottish Women’s Aid yesterday, to help it support women in violent homes during the coronavirus ciris.

Dr Scott welcomed the money but added: “We need to make sure that, while Scotland continues to champion our new legislation and continues to tell women that the law is on their side, we put our money where our mouth is and fund the life-saving services that support women, children and young people to deal with the abuse they have experienced.

“Sustainable, long-term funding is the key to this, and while we keep a close eye on implementation of the legislation we will also continue to call for our services to be appropriately funded to deal with the increased demand they’re facing as a result.”

Scotland’s Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline remains fully operational during the coronavirus pandemic. Call 24/7 on 0800 027 1234, or email and web chat from www.sdafmh.org.uk

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