Judith Gillespie,the former Deputy Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, talks to VIEW editor Brian Pelan about the steps needed to tackle domestic violence and the difficult period in her own life when she suffered online abuse
Question: Are our laws on domestic violence fit for purpose?
Answer: The short answer is no When you consider that offences of violence are still prosecuted under the old 1861 Offences against the Person Act. It’s only recently in Northern Ireland that sentencing for so-called common assault increased from a maximum of three months imprisonment to six months imprisonment. And that only happened in 2011. And when you consider how domestic abuse has developed or how our awareness of domestic abuse has developed to include the likes of non-violent, coercive and controlling behaviour. Legislation has not moved with the times and it needs to do that.
Q: Why have we not introduced legislation in Northern Ireland on controlling and coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship, similar to England and Wales which was introduced in December 2015?
A: The simple answer to that is because we don’t have an Executive, we don’t have a minister, we don’t have an Assembly currently. So whilst we are in that situation we can’t have new legislation passed. Even though there had been very considerable progress made to introducing that legislation. There was a consultation process, there was a draft Bill – we were very close to having that introduced – but unfortunately, when the Executive and the Assembly collapsed, all the draft legislation remains in draft, and that’s very frustrating.
Q: Should Westminster implement domestic violence legislation in Northern Ireland if we return to direct rule?
A: I think most people would prefer to see a working Assembly here and local legislation being introduced by a local Justice Minister, but in the absence of that – if that’s the only way we can protect victims by having legislation passed – then of course.
Q: Do you agree that finding closure and justice can be an agonising process for the victim?
A: It’s really difficult to come into a police station and make a statement or a complaint against the person that you love. On top of that you’ve got all the pressure from your partner, from their family, from the community. Maybe it means that you’re going to have to leave your home. And the impact that has financially. And also the length of time it takes for the case to proceed through the courts, so it’s not going to be weeks. In some cases it’s not even going to be months. In some cases, it could take years. So in the meantime, you’re still undergoing all of this pressure – this emotional pressure to withdraw your statement and to just move on with your life. So it’s a painful process and then when you eventually have to get into the courtroom and tell your story in open court… that can be really painful and can involve really personal and intimate details of the relationship with your partner.
Q: Do some of us look the other way because we do not want to get involved?
A: Across western European society, there’s still this attitude of “They must have asked for it, they must have done something to provoke it”. And also the sense of “It’s a private matter, I don’t want to get involved. I’m sure they’ll make up. Isn’t it better for the children if they stay together?” We have that kind of attitude. You get it right throughout society; not just in churches or in faith groups. A case of “is it not better that the police don’t get involved and is it not better that you withdraw the statement?”
Q: Do you believe that many victims still don’t report domestic abuse?
A: Lots of research will say that women are assaulted many, many times before they report it to the police. Arguably, between one in four women will experience some sort of domestic violence.
Q: Superintendent Ryan Henderson from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) recently said: “The big challenge for us is that perpetrators only see a courtroom in three out of 10 cases.” Why is this?
A: Well, once again you can say that in cases of domestic abuse, it’s rarely that you don’t know who the perpetrator is. Nine times out of 10 you’ll know who the suspect is, you’ll know who the perpetrator is. The key part of the investigation is the sensitivity with which you deal with the victim and the witnesses, and in particular when the witnesses are children. Many, many victims live in real fear. Very often some victims would say that’s almost worse than the physical assault. It’s the fear of what might happen Also not every victim wants to go to court. They want to stop the abuse and they want to feel safe at home but they don’t necessarily want to see them prosecuted. There is still, whether we like it or not, there is still a stigma attached to people who are victims of domestic abuse.
Q: What could be done better in making sure that more abusers are prosecuted?
A: If we talk about rape in the context of domestic abuse there is always the issue of consent and that makes it incredibly difficult to prosecute. The good thing is that the Public Prosecution Service have specific guidelines for prosecuting in domestic abuse and rape cases. There is a domestic abuse court pilot scheme taking place in Derry. And that type of initiative is really helpful in showing that the criminal justice system recognises that it has to shape itself to fit the problem, not try and squeeze the problem into the current system.
Q: Do you think the pilot system in Derry should be rolled out across Northern Ireland?
A: Absolutely. It’s still a pilot but I think the early indications are very good.
Q: Could the PSNI and the PPS work more effectively together?
A: You can always improve. I would never say that everything in the criminal justice system is perfect but I think big strides have been made. And when I think about when I joined the RUC in the early 1980s, the attitude towards domestic violence has changed significantly. It is now recognised as a crime that needs specialist investigators, specialist support for victims, inter-agency partnerships and public protection teams.The Rowan (a sexual assault referral centre) is a partnership between health and justice. That’s the sort of partnership that we need.
Q: You have sued in the past over online slurs made against you. What are your views on this type of abuse?
A: Women in high-profile positions are always subject to very personal abuse. It is not exclusive to women, but it is more common with women. The abuse is about their appearance, their dress, their shoes, their personal lives and their family. I had very personal abuse and it lasted for a couple of years. Unfortunately the initial advice that was given to me was “just ignore it, Judith. It’s not that serious. It’ll go away, don’t worry about it”. It was probably the worst advice I could have got, because it got worse and it spread. Social media obviously is the way in which these things spread. It was a deeply unpleasant period in my police career but I have learned that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I’m a very resilient person, and it was satisfying when some of the folk who wrote really defamatory, nasty, personally abusive stuff about me ended up going through the criminal courts or the civil courts. The beautiful thing about it was when payments of compensation were made I insisted that they go to charities that supported women. And I thought that was delicious.
Q: How do we make serious inroads into tackling domestic abuse since it is so prevalent across all classes in society?
A: A lot of it is about power, control and gender issues. I think the more it’s talked about and the more that we can accept that it is nothing to do with the victim is a good thing. The first time it happens it’s acceptable to go and seek help, it’s acceptable to go and get support. Legislation cannot protect everybody all of the time, but I think legislation is a statement that domestic abuse is not acceptable.
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