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Committee for Health

Health Committee response to call for evidence from Committee for Justice on the Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill 2020 - 5 June 2020

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Introduction

The Health Committee was invited by the Committee for Justice, on 13 May, to submit its views on the Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill, by 5 June.

The Health Committee decided on 14 May that, given the shared policy responsibility for this important matter, it wished to contribute its views.

Given the short deadline and its existing scheduled briefings focused on COVID-19, the Health Committee agreed to hold an additional meeting on 28 May to consider the Bill.

The Committee heard evidence from Women’s Aid, the Men’s Advisory Project and NSPCC. The Committee then heard briefing from, and put questions to, officials from the Department of Health and the Department of Justice. The meeting was recorded by Hansard and will be available on the Assembly website when published.

The submission from Women’s Aid to the Committee is attached as Appendix 1. Any further written submissions received will be forwarded to the Committee for Justice. The Committee agreed this report on the Bill on XXXX.

 

Policy Context

Responsibility for policy relating to domestic and sexual abuse in NI lies jointly with the Department of Justice and the Department of Health. The policy direction is derived from the 2016 Stopping Domestic and Sexual Violence and Abuse in Northern Ireland seven-year strategy1.

The most recent action plan for the Strategy is the draft Year 4 Action Plan2, which includes the following legislative commitments:

Strand 4: Introduce a new Domestic Abuse Offence and statutory aggravator3

Strand 5: Introduce Domestic Violence Protection Notices and Domestic Violence Protection Orders in Northern Ireland4.

The Bill addresses the legislative commitments in Strand 4, while the Minister for Justice has indicated that the commitments in Strand 5 will be addressed via further legislation in 20215.

 

 

Evidence taken

 

Women’s Aid Federation, NI

Ms Sonya McMullen, Regional Services Manager, Women’s Aid Federation NI, briefed the Committee highlighting the importance of early detection; the fact that most victims will have come into contact with the health and social care system; that half of those impacted are children; and that the range of impacts spans mental and physical health, with strong links to self-harm and suicide. Women’s Aid called for the roll-out of routine screening questions in additional settings, referring to the range of opportunities when people attend physiotherapy, radiography or other appointments. Women’s Aid expressed support for the Bill but pointed to the omission of issues already included in the Domestic Abuse Bill in passage at Westminster, such as the establishment of a domestic abuse commissioner. Ms McMullen stressed the need to reform the family court to reduce hardship on children and parents. Referencing the importance of accommodation issues, she also said there was no equivalent of the £76 million emergency funding available in Great Britain.

The Women’s Aid submission is attached as Appendix 1.

 

NSPCC NI

Neil Anderson, National Head of Service, NSPCC NI, raised two main aspects of the Bill for scrutiny: firstly, the lack of focus on the health and social care aspects of domestic abuse and, secondly, the impact on children accused under the Bill. Mr Anderson said that the Domestic Abuse Bill, in passage in Westminster, could be instructive in some regards, notably that only minors aged 16 or over could be charged under its provisions, whereas, in Northern Ireland, the provisions could apply from the age of criminal responsibility, which is much younger (age 10). He said the statutory guidance (on implementation of the Bill) would be very important.

While NSPCC welcomed Clauses 8 and 9 regarding aggravation where a child is the victim or is involved in the offence, Mr Anderson said these provisions should be extended to recognise two victims, including a child impacted by the offence.

Mr Anderson advised that NSPCC are neutral on the issue of a domestic abuse commissioner but open to discussion.

The NSPCC briefing note, attached as Appendix 2, was received after consideration of the draft report.

 

Men’s Advisory Project

Ms Rhonda Lusty stressed that dedicated funding was essential to the success of the Bill. She said the Bill created a great opportunity but that proactive decisions were required to commission relevant services. Ms Lusty said under-reporting of domestic abuse remained a significant challenge, sitting at approximately 21%, and referenced 31,000 reported domestic abuse incidents in 2019, of which 18,000 were crimes. She called for the lens to be widened to pay attention to the needs of those ignored and underscored that men were the victims of one third of domestic abuse incidents.

MAP is also calling for consideration of how to deal with barriers to reporting such as communication or disability issues and believes the appointment of a domestic abuse commissioner should be examined further. Ms Lusty acknowledged that the Protect Life 2 suicide strategy points to domestic abuse victims as an at-risk group and highlighted the need for additional training for first responders. She said that all stakeholders such as MAP need to be more involved in wider mental health policy discussions.

 

 

Committee views

The Committee for Health is supportive of the Bill, in principle, but believes that achieving its full potential is conditional on a number of factors including resourcing and support for victims of domestic abuse and education and awareness programmes as well as training for staff. The Committee believes assurances should be sought in relation to these matters, not all of which are addressed on the face of the Bill.

 

Clause 2

The Health Committee welcomes the creation of a new offence to capture abuse not readily capable of prosecution under existing legislation. The Committee believes that victims’ and survivors’ reliance on these provisions will hinge on the range of support available and their experience of the process from report to conviction.

Process and duration of proceedings

In order to encourage people to come forward and make use of the new offence, the Committee believes the time to conclude a case from start to finish must be shortened to minimise further trauma to victims and survivors, for whom the process can be very difficult to endure. NSPCC and Women’s Aid flagged the potential benefits of more specialised courts, better equipped to ensure victims are supported and not re-traumatised.

Domestic Abuse Commissioner and Victims Advocate

The Committee discussed the potential benefits of a Domestic Abuse Commissioner, as included in the Westminster Bill, and the possible introduction of a Victims’ Advocate to support victims through the legal process as part of a specialised court. Women’s Aid referenced a related recommendation arising from the Gillen Review of the law and procedures in serious sexual offences6. The Committee believes such initiatives merit consideration and welcomes the indication by the Department of Justice official that an advocacy service was in development though it is not in the present Bill.

Paid leave

The Committee recommends the introduction of paid leave to facilitate victims of domestic abuse in making arrangements to separate from their partner and welcomed confirmation by officials that relevant Ministers are in correspondence on the matter.

Housing, homelessness and secure tenancies

Members heard evidence of the importance of housing and homelessness issues in implementing the legislation effectively. Ms Sonya McMullen, Regional Services Manager of Women's Aid Federation NI, advised the Committee that refuges are usually running at 100% occupancy and argued that every victim of domestic abuse should have the right to secure emergency accommodation. She stated that a new housing allocation system was to be introduced by the Department for Communities and referenced the broader approach adopted in the Domestic Abuse Bill in passage in the House of Commons. Ms Lusty of MAP advised that there are no refuges for men experience domestic abuse, though men are estimated to comprise around one third of victims.

The Committee notes the problems inherent in expecting a victim to move (often with children) out of the family home as a key step in dealing with abuse; a particular example is where the home is adapted to cater for disability. The Committee also acknowledges that the absence of sufficient refuge places could also limit effectiveness of the bill. Members discussed provision for ‘secure tenancies’ in Clause 65 of the Domestic Abuse Bill currently in passage in the House of Commons.

Recommendation 1: The Health Committee recommends that assurances be sought that resources will be put in place to speed up and streamline the handling of domestic abuse cases from start to finish.

Recommendation 2: The Health Committee recommends that consideration be given to the introduction of a Victims’ Advocate and/or a Domestic Abuse Commissioner.

Recommendation 3: The Health Committee supports the introduction of paid leave to facilitate victims of domestic abuse making arrangements to separate from their partner.

Recommendation 4: The Health Committee recommends that consideration be given to legislating for ‘secure tenancies’ for victims of domestic abuse.

 

Clauses 8 and 9 – children and young people

The Committee welcomes discrete recognition of the damage that can be done to children and young people, by seeing or hearing domestic abuse; or by being involved in abuse, such as when a child is used to contribute to emotional or psychological distress. This connects with a further cross-cutting area of policy in relation to Adverse Childhood Experiences.

Recommendation 5: The Committee recommends that statutory guidance and associated training be provided to front-line responders on the implementation of Clauses 8 and 9.

The Committee is also aware that young people could be convicted of abuse under the Bill. Members acknowledge the evidence that many young people found to be engaging in abusive behaviour are also victims of abuse and would recommend that this be taken into account in dealing with young people under these provisions.

Members were advised there have been very few prosecutions of under 18s in England under the legislation; that ‘more suitable alternatives’ would be sought where possible; and that the matter may be addressed in guidance.

The issue of false allegations was discussed by the Committee and it was recognised that the provision in the Bill criminalising the use of a child to abuse, for example, a parent, could be helpful in this regard. Stakeholders flagged the importance of the ‘non-legislative’ approach to this matter, relying on the expertise and professionalism of social workers and police officers.

Recommendation 6: The Health Committee recommends that that a tailored approach be taken in respect of young people accused or convicted of domestic abuse, such that engagement with the justice system is underpinned by support to explore and address any experience of abuse with a view to helping such young people to develop healthy relationships. The Committee would also recommend that, where considered appropriate, young people have access to youth diversionary processes which are in place for other offences.

 

Clause 12 – ‘Defence on grounds of reasonableness’

The Committee’s understanding is that to avail of the defence under the Clause 12, the accused does not have to prove that his/her course of behaviour was reasonable in the particular circumstances but to bring forward enough evidence “to raise an issue” as to whether it was reasonable in the particular circumstances, at which point the burden of proof reverts to the prosecution to prove to the contrary.

Mental Health

Members heard evidence that mental ill-health including depression, anxiety and addictions, can often be related to domestic abuse. In that context, Members expressed concern about the potential risk that an abuser could seek to exploit such conditions to advance a defence of reasonableness as cover for exerting coercive control over a victim. NSPCC, Women’s Aid and MAP alluded to concerns around potential misuse of the defence.

The Committee questioned officials on safeguards and were advised that statutory guidance would address this but felt further consideration and monitoring may be required in relation to the implementation of Clause 12.

Members noted the important connection between the Domestic Abuse Strategy the forthcoming mental health strategy and suicide strategy ‘Protect Life 2’.

Recommendation 7: The Health Committee recommends that detailed consideration be given to the safeguards proposed in connection with reliance on Clause 12 and the protection of victims with mental ill-health.

Recommendation 8: The Committee further recommends that the implementation of Clause 12 be subject to review.

 

 

Conclusion

The Health Committee is glad to have the opportunity to contribute to discussion the Bill but would highlight that it has not, in the time available, had the opportunity to consider the Bill in depth. The Committee is supportive of the Bill, in principle, but wishes to see it resourced to maximise its effectiveness and prevent, tackle and reduce the scourge of domestic abuse. The Committee is conscious of the close interface between domestic abuse and a range of other issues from mental health to housing and homelessness and believes the impact of the Bill could be undercut by failing to address these adequately. Conversely, if the Bill is successful in increasing the confidence of victims to come forward, this could lead to additional demand on services which should be factored in.

The Health Committee welcomes the Minister for Justice’s commitment, referenced above, to bring forward additional domestic abuse provisions in further legislation next year and the Health Committee makes its recommendations for consideration in that light.

 

APPENDICES

Appendix 1 - Women's Aid Federation Northern Ireland

Appendix 2 - National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children Northern Ireland

 

 

Footnotes:

1 Department of Justice and Department of Health (2016), Stopping Domestic and Sexual Violence and Abuse in Northern Ireland - A Seven Year Strategy, March 2016, Belfast: DoJ and DoH: https://www.justice- ni.gov.uk/publications/stoppingdomestic-and-sexual-violence-and-abuse-northern-ireland-seven-year- strategy-march-2016

2 Department of Justice and Department of Health (2019), Stopping Domestic and Sexual Violence and Abuse Strategy - Year 4 Action Plan, Belfast: DoJ and DoH, https://www.health- ni.gov.uk/sites/default/files/publications/health/dsv-4-plan.pdf

3 Priority 20: Continue to develop and deliver initiatives and interventions, based on best practice, to effectively address harmful, violent and abusive behaviour.

4 Priority 18: Focused protection, support and information will be available for all victims throughout their engagement with the Justice System.

5 Official Report (Hansard), Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill, second stage debate, 28 May 2020, pg.17

6 https://www.justice-ni.gov.uk/publications/gillen-review-report-law-and-procedures-serious-sexual- offences-ni

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