Stopping domestic violence the missing piece?

07 February 2019 - by Gráinne Walsh

The first in our article series looked at several decisions in the Department of Justice delayed by the continuing impasse at Stormont. This week we focus on the action plan for the Stopping Domestic and Sexual Violence and Abuse in Northern Ireland Strategy.

The Strategy was jointly developed by the Department of Health and Department for Justice in 2016, and illustrated the cross-departmental partnership at the heart of the outcomes-based model in the 2016-21 draft Programme for Government framework.

It set out a path for tackling the issues of domestic and sexual violence and abuse over the following seven years.

In August 2018, both departments revealed a three-year action plan for improving the services outlined in the Strategy. However, the plan is currently in stasis while organisations involved in the delivery of services are facing significant strategic and funding challenges. 

Shortly after the publication of the action plan, Dolores Kelly MLA, the SDLP spokesperson for policing and justice, said that a lack of funding resulting from the absence of ministers meant that it will be “impossible” to implement the Strategy in its entirety.

The PSNI defines domestic abuse as ‘threatening, controlling, coercive behaviour, violence or abuse (psychological, virtual, physical, verbal, sexual, financial or emotional) inflicted on anyone (irrespective of age, ethnicity, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or any form of disability) by a current or former intimate partner or family member.’                 

The majority of victims are female and the 2014-2015 Women’s Aid annual report noted that on average four women and children are given refuge every day because they are not safe in their own homes.

Between 1 October 2017 and 30 September 2018, the number of reported domestic abuse incidents rose to 31,008 – an increase of 5.4 per cent compared to the previous 12 months.

Of those incidents, 15,404 were classified as crimes, up by 8.8 per cent on the previous year.

The levels of recorded domestic abuse incidents and domestic abuse crimes for the latest period are the highest since data collection began in 2004-2005, with the latter category making up 15.6 per cent of all PSNI recorded offences for 2017-2018.

The increasing rate of recorded domestic abuse incidents in Northern Ireland could be attributed to a higher rate of reporting rather than a higher rate of occurrence. Research cited in the domestic violence strategy indicates that the majority of incidents go unreported, and there often exists a significant delay between the abuse taking place and the police becoming aware of it.

The Northern Ireland Crime Survey (NICS) 2010-2011 found that the PSNI was only made aware of around one third of all ‘worst’ cases of domestic partner abuse – meaning that it carries out no investigation into the experiences of seven in ten victims (68.9 per cent).

The NICS findings also estimated that 15.7 per cent of people aged 16-64 have experienced at least one form of domestic violence, by a partner, since age 16, with women (19.3 per cent) displaying a higher prevalence rate than men (11.5 per cent).

The three-year action plan for the departments’ strategy aims to improve services to victims. The plan will see the implementation of a ‘Domestic Homicide Review’ process to promote good practice in responding to abuse.

A 'Sanctuary Scheme' for those in need of aid will also be implemented to enable them to remain safe in their own homes.

Without a functioning Executive, the long-term funding and full implementation of the action plan is uncertain.

In addition to the delayed implementation of the initiative, Northern Ireland has not benefited from other domestic abuse laws designed to protect domestic abuse victims implemented in England, Wales, and Scotland.

Examples of activities now illegal in Great Britain include: sharing sexually explicit images, both online or physically; installing tracking devices on a partner’s mobile phone; controlling what a partner wears; and forcing one partner to obey the abusing partner’s rules.

The implementation of the action plan for the Strategy will continue to be delayed until a new Justice Minister is in post. Alternatively, the Permanent Secretary for the Department of Justice, Peter May, could choose to take a more pro-active approach, in a style similar to that of the Department of Health.

This, of course, depends on whether May, and the all-important departmental solicitor feels that there exists adequate cover from the direction of travel already set by the outgoing Justice Minister (or indeed, series of ministers as at the Department of Health), the likelihood of challenge and whether the implementation of the plan is in the public interest.