Rising number of domestic abuse victims seek harassment orders

Almost 1,000 Scots will secure non-harassment orders from the country's courts this year, with numbers having soared tenfold recently.

Campaigners welcome news that almost 1,000 Scots will ask courts for help this year but believe more legal tools are required

Women seeking protection from abusive male partners is a huge part of the problem and the rise has been welcomed by support groups who say there is more confidence in the system.

But with police receiving 60,000 domestic abuse calls a year there are now calls for a greater array of “tools” to tackle domestic abuse, including powers to immediately remove abusive partners from a household.

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

The orders can be granted by sheriff courts after an abuser has been convicted of harassing a victim.

The comments come as Justice Secretary Michael Matheson travelled to The Hague to meet Europol's director. Picture: PA

They prohibit behaviour which may been seen as a repeat of the abuse and can range from phoning or texting repeatedly to a neighbour shouting abuse.

There were just 101 orders granted by Scotland’s criminal courts in 2011-12, according to figures released through parliamentary answers. This had increased to 938 in 2015-16 and figures for the first four months of the new year indicate it will rise again over the course of 2016-17

Scottish Women’s Aid has previously raised concerns about the under-use of non-harassment orders after it carried out research which identified “various problems” with the system.

“There have been all kinds of complexities on why they haven’t been used,” said Dr Marsha Scott, chief executive of Scottish Women’s Aid.

The comments come as Justice Secretary Michael Matheson travelled to The Hague to meet Europol's director. Picture: PA

“One was a lack of faith from the women involved that breaches of them would be taken seriously and that they would be policed appropriately. If you get a non-harassment order with somebody who is abusing you and it’s not worth the paper its written on, then that probably just increases your danger. My speculation is that women are beginning to have a bit more faith in the criminal justice response to this and how to protect them.”

There are also concerns around cost and access to legal aid to secure their use, along with worries about how likely sheriffs are to understand the “dynamics of domestic abuse” and when to apply non-harassment orders, Dr Scott added.

“I think we’re seeing some improvement in all of these things.

“But I think it’s really important to understand that we had almost 60,000 calls on domestic abuse last year, so 1,000 non-harassment orders is just beginning to come into the area of what we might consider a low amount of reasonable.

“We’re cautiously encouraged, but we think they’re vastly under-used.

“We think we need some legislation that will signal to police and local authorities, some emergency barring legislation, that would allow us to create a real confidence in police and housing authorities that they can remove perpetrators when that’s what the women want.”

In June, stalker Steven Laird was made the subject of an 18-month non-harassment order after offences committed against his ex-girlfriend in Angus.

This included bombarding her with menacing messages, smashing her mobile phone after finding a photo of her and another man on it, and subjecting her to a terrifying car journey after being told she had another partner.

Last month in Fife, 76-year-old William Shepherd was served with a year-long non-harassment order against his daughter after tormenting her with a campaign of abuse which included sending her letters and packages and an RIP message.

Lydia House of Zero Tolerance said: “Non-harassment orders are an important resource for women who are experiencing domestic abuse.

“Stalking and threatening behaviour is hugely detrimental to a victim’s quality of life: all mechanisms available should be used to keep women safe from perpetrators, including making sure they have safe refuge in their own homes and the ability to remove those who abuse them when required.”

The figures published by Justice Secretary Michael Matheson refer to orders which have been secured by prosecutors after an abuser has been convicted of a crime.

It is also possible for victims to apply for orders themselves through the civil courts where they have suffered behaviour which puts them in a state of fear, but may not in itself be unlawful, but the numbers for these are less clear. The behaviour victims are seeking to stop must have happened at least twice before the can raise an action. In either case, a breach of the order is a criminal offence and the abuser can face up to five years in jail as well as the prospect of an unlimited fine.

Victims of abuse can also apply for an interdict, although the penalties for breaking these are less severe.

Non-harassment orders are also used to protect tenants who are threatened by neighbours or landlords.

Graeme Brown, Director of housing charity Shelter Scotland, said: “Violent or abusive disputes within a household are the third most common reason given by people when they apply to Scottish councils to be given assistance for homelessness.

“It is really important that people experiencing domestic abuse know that non-harassment orders can be used to help make their existing home safe, sparing them the upheaval of leaving their home – something which can be especially difficult for children to accept.”

MSPs recently backed the creation of a new offence that will recognise psychological abuse as well as physical abuse so that criminal law will be better able to reflect the “true experience” of what is domestic abuse.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We welcome the figures showing our courts are ensuring that the protection of non-harassment orders is available to more victims, including domestic abuse victims.

“These powers are an important part of how 
the justice system can 
provide direct support for victims and the Scottish Government is committed 
to looking at what more may be needed to improve protection for victims of domestic abuse.

“We are committed to tackling and eradicating violence against women and are investing an additional £20 million over three years on top of the £11.8m committed annually, to fund a range of measures tackling all forms of this type of violence, including domestic abuse.”