Domestic Violence: Court Listings

Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 20th September 2016.

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Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin 2:15 pm, 20th September 2016

4. Mr McAleer asked the Minister of Justice whether her Department plans to extend the implementation of the Magistrates' Court pilot scheme, launched in November 2011, which provided for special listing arrangements for domestic violence cases. (AQO 268/16-21)

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

Tackling domestic and sexual violence and abuse is a key priority for me as Justice Minister. I am committed to ensuring that victims who are encouraged to engage with the criminal justice system are provided with effective protection and support, and that perpetrators are held to account. I believe that there is a desire across the Executive to address the issue, as evidenced not only by the all-party group on domestic violence but by the support of the Justice Committee, and I look forward to working with colleagues as we move forward on that.

I commend the approach in Derry of delivering special listing arrangements for domestic violence cases. The arrangements, which were introduced by District Judge McElholm in 2011, ensure that domestic violence cases are clustered and heard by him on specifically designated days. Relevant agencies, including the support services, concentrate their efforts and resources into those days in order to provide moral and practical support to victims.

An evaluation of the scheme, undertaken in 2014, indicated that the arrangement makes a tangible difference to victims of domestic violence and abuse who have to face what is often a daunting and overwhelming journey through the criminal justice process. Some improvements to support services available to victims were identified, and, in March this year, my predecessor announced that the arrangements should be enhanced before further consideration is given to rolling out the model across other areas of Northern Ireland.

The Londonderry listing arrangement also formed part of the study undertaken by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in June 2015 as part of the public governance review. Its report heralds the success of the domestic violence listing arrangement and recommends the inclusion of a judicially supervised pilot programme for perpetrators. Rigorous monitoring and evaluation will provide insight into the added value of judicial oversight as part of the domestic violence listing arrangement and inform future decisions on the most effective model for dealing with domestic violence cases in the court system.

My Department is, therefore, taking the necessary steps to enhance the existing domestic violence listing arrangement through the introduction of a pilot court-supervised perpetrator programme. In my role as Justice Minister, I have already met Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, and I will continue to engage with him and other stakeholders as I look to the future of this specific arrangement and in seeking more widely to address domestic and sexual violence and abuse in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

I remind the Minister of the two-minute rule.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for her extensive answer. Does she believe that domestic violence courts will encourage and empower more victims to take action? If the pilot is rolled out, will her Department be minded to engage in a public awareness campaign on this option being available?

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

I thank the Member for his question. The arrangement in Derry has been very successful. When we look at the new enhancements to that arrangement, we may be minded to see whether it would be appropriate to roll out the scheme across Northern Ireland. I take the Member's point about a wider public awareness programme. To be honest, before becoming Minister, I was not aware of the arrangement in Derry, probably thankfully.

You are right, however. People will be encouraged to come forward to report such offences if they are better supported. It is a challenging thing to stand up in court and give evidence, particularly if you are a victim. It has been seen that there is a reluctance to do so, whereas in a supportive environment we are seeing an increase in the number of people coming forward, and that can only be a good thing.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

I have been asking questions on the issue as far back as June 2011, when I asked the then Minister two questions. In 2015, I asked him a similar question to the previous ones. I am tempted to ask the Minister the same question again, because the then Minister said then that he noted:

"a positive evaluation of these arrangements has recently been completed which recommends that these measures and initiatives are introduced in other courts. Officials from the Department and the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service —" — [Official Report (Hansard), 23 January 2015, pWA71].

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

I ask the Member to get to his question.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

Yes. I thought that you would say that. How long will an evaluation of this take? We are now at nearly six years. Do we have to wait another six?

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

I thank the Member for his inference. No, I hope that you do not have to wait another six years. I would like to get the work done a little bit quicker than that.

To be fair to my predecessor, with the pilot arrangement in Derry, there were issues around how we could better support victims that came out of the OECD report. He recommended that we could perhaps further enhance the arrangements under the pilot scheme so that we can see whether it is appropriate to roll it out across Northern Ireland. We are looking at that. As I said, this is my overarching priority for the next five years. If I can go some way towards tackling the issue, we can solve a lot of social and economic problems across Northern Ireland. Therefore, yes, I hope that it will be a lot sooner than six years.

Photo of Jennifer Palmer Jennifer Palmer UUP

Given the particular effects and coercive nature of domestic violence, can I confirm with the Minister that there are no instances of individuals convicted of domestic violence taking part in the enhanced combination order pilot that was started last October?

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

I thank the Member for her question, in which she mentioned coercive control. My Department recently undertook a public consultation that sought views on whether a specific domestic abuse offence to capture patterns of coercive and controlling behaviour should be introduced in law. Although I will want to consult the Justice Committee and enter into wider engagement with the community and voluntary sector, I am minded to move forward on the issue.

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green

A recent briefing paper given to me by the Assembly's research team shows that, although the total number of homicides in Northern Ireland has fallen over the past few years, those with a domestic abuse motivation have remained relatively constant, to the point that, whereas in 2008 16·7% of homicide cases were female victims, in 2014 that proportion had risen to just over 41%. It is good to hear the plans to take the issue seriously and to extend the implementation of the courts —

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

Can we move to a question, please?

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green

— but what other initiatives will she be addressing as a matter of absolute urgency for domestic violence victims?

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

I thank the Member for her question. She mentions domestic homicides. My Department previously explored the issue of domestic homicide reviews by setting up a working group to scope serious case reviews already in place across relevant Departments and agencies and to consider initial options for delivery. It was agreed that further work was required to ensure that a proposed model would be suitable for Northern Ireland and link into a complex context of reviews identified. The DOJ has therefore committed, under the action plan for the new stopping domestic and sexual violence and abuse strategy, to developing an appropriate model to identify lessons learned and improve responses to cases of domestic homicide in Northern Ireland. Work has commenced, and additional resources have been secured to progress the initiative.

To come back to what else we can do, I am very much at the beginning of a five-year mandate, and it is an area that I really do have quite a passion for and am keen to address. A lot of the work that has been done up until now was perhaps already ongoing under my predecessor. However, over the next five years, I will be really keen to engage with the community and voluntary sector on the matter and try to get suggestions from other jurisdictions to see what we can do. I am open to those suggestions. I know that the Member has a specific interest in this, so if she has any ideas I would be keen to meet and discuss them.