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My Lords, I too pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove. I particularly agree with her opening point on the inappropriateness of using police requisitions rather than police bail when one is dealing with domestic abuse cases. This is something that I see quite often and it is of great concern. I also agree very much with the comments of my noble friend Lady Armstrong and the noble Baroness, Lady Burt. We sit on the Joint Committee for the draft DA Bill and it has been a pleasure and a privilege to serve with them both. I sit as a magistrate in London, in Westminster magistrates’ court in the Specialist Domestic Abuse Court, and I will concentrate my comments on the way we work in that court.
I have been a magistrate for about 14 years now, and in that time we have seen a development of the recognition of domestic abuse as a pervasive ill in our society. The courts have adjusted procedures and sentencing practices and we are still looking at ways to hear cases fairly and reduce the very high drop-out rate of cases coming to court.
I will make a brief comment on family courts. Some 70% of all cases in the family courts have a DA element to them. Of course, that needs to be recognised when we are finding suitable long-term arrangements for children. That is a separate subject and I will not dwell on it now, but I think that the Government’s three-month review of the role of the family courts is inadequate. It is a very complex matter and one of the most difficult things that I have to deal with, so a more in-depth study would be appropriate for the work of the family courts.
The figures for domestic abuse in England and Wales are in the briefing note that we received from the Library. It is clearly a gendered crime in that the vast majority of victims are women, but other groups such as disabled people and elderly people are disproportionately vulnerable. It is also a hidden crime in that it occurs mainly in private, in the home. It is also—this has been touched on in today’s debate—difficult to define what domestic abuse is. The perspective of domestic abuse has evolved in the time that I have been aware of it over the last 14 years.
I shall say something more about the work of Westminster magistrates’ court. It is supported by a charity, Standing Together. Complainants are supported through the court process. This time-consuming work is done so that women—and it is usually women who are the victims—understand the process and the likely outcomes of the court’s sentences. Another important factor is that the court will be better informed when making bail decisions. Bail is very often one of the most difficult decisions one has to make in court. The additional information we get as magistrates means that we can make better decisions. All this extra, non-statutory support that we get in Westminster magistrates’ court is paid for by the local authorities—Hammersmith and Fulham and Westminster councils.
I shall go through the extra support we get from the co-ordinators who work in the court. First, the complainants’ wishes are much better understood by the court than may normally be the case outside a domestic abuse situation. Secondly, there is a far fuller understanding of ongoing proceedings in other jurisdictions, other matters that may be coming to court and previous hearings. Thirdly, and equally importantly, the co-ordinator will liaise with social services to understand issues in the family background and the housing status of the men and women involved. Fourthly, we get additional police information—namely, callouts to the home. That can, and sometimes does, colour our decision on bail. There is also better tracking of cases. There is liaison with local authorities through the MARAC procedure, which is the complex recording and research of difficult cases, and with police community safety officers and witness care.
It is evident to me that, while these courts play a central role in ensuring that the guilty are brought to justice, they are, and must be, only one part of a wider co-ordinated community response to the complexities of domestic abuse. Ongoing support of DA victims not only supports better outcomes in court but means that victims will feel better able to leave abusive relationships and live safe, violence-free lives. The management of specialist DA courts is done by the normal court listing process, but we have 10 agencies that regularly sit in on meetings as we review procedures and listing patterns.
As a magistrate, I do not get involved in looking at conviction rates. Magistrates leave that to the CPS and literally leave the meeting when that subject is talked about. Our concern as magistrates is just that the case gets on so that we can have a fair hearing of the matter before us. I know that the Government are sympathetic to the work of these courts, and we have benefited greatly from the non-statutory support of the specialist co-ordinators. However, I believe that, even without that support, the court could do better in addressing the procedures and levels of co-ordination with other agencies to get better outcomes for domestic abuse cases. The statistics in Westminster show that the number of defendants is increasing, the conviction rate is increasing and the number of hearings per completed case is decreasing—all of which helps to give proper support to specialist domestic abuse courts.