Clare Bailey: Why we need a Domestic Violence Law

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Clare Bailey

Clare Bailey, South Belfast MLA for the Green Party in Northern Ireland, argues that it’s time we showed zero tolerance to the perpetrators of domestic abuse in our society

I am outraged at the level of domestic and sexual violence that is so prevalent in our society. If you’re not then you are not paying attention.

Northern Ireland has no domestic violence legislation. During my short time spent on the Justice Committee before the Assembly was brought crashing down, the Minister for Justice had announced that she would bring forward legislation to tackle domestic abuse and coercive control within the year. I, and the Justice Committee, welcomed this and were working to ensure that these commitments were delivered. Yet here we are 13 months later with no Assembly and no legislation, yet it is a pseudo-cultural war on equality of identity that has us on our knees.

In 2016 I proposed an amendment calling on the Northern Ireland Executive and the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) to improve rape prosecution and conviction rates. I was delighted that the amendment received widespread cross-party support in the Assembly.

Between 2010 and 2014, no prosecution was recommended in 83 percent of rape cases. This is unacceptable and my amendment was to ensure that there is a focus on tackling this low level of prosecution for rape and sexual violence cases. I proposed doing this by calling on the PPS to begin collecting and publishing detailed data on why rape prosecutions are not successful, and further call on the Minister for Justice to instruct the Criminal Justice Inspectorate to undertake a full thematic review of sexual violence and abuse.

Under the Patten Commission recommendations much was done to encourage people to support the new Police Service in Northern Ireland, including the introduction of quotas, not gender quotas but religious quotas. It was accepted that the new PSNI needed more Catholics in order to get better support from Catholic communities. It was never noted that we might need more women to get a better balance or more effective outcomes. Since the effort to create more public confidence in policing began, statistics clearly show that the number of people reporting rape crimes has increased year on year. The same statistics also show that on average the PSNI have recommended approximately half these cases for prosecution but yet we are failing to see any significant increase in the number of cases making it into a court, and of the small number that do, we consistently see a pitiful number of convictions.

During the period between 2009-2013, there were 83 convictions for rape.

Research carried out by the Northern Ireland Assembly shows around 80 percent of the victims of sexual crime are female and over half of those are under 18 years of age.

Of those convicted of sexual crimes, all have been men during the same years. Although they are from all age ranges we can see a significant spike in numbers between the ages of 18 to 29.

Statistics from the Northern Ireland Crime Survey show that 2008/09 to 2010/11, only 31.1 percent of domestic abuse ‘worst’ cases were reported to the police. In the case of lifetime abuse cases (where the victim had experienced some form of partner abuse at any time since the age of 16), the figure is even lower: only 27.1 percent of these cases had been reported to police.

Demand for vital support services for victims and survivors at organisations such as Women’s Aid and Nexus are increasing daily while these organisations have had their funding cut. It is time we showed zero tolerance to domestic and sexual violence. We need decent domestic violence and coercive control legislation similar to that in other regions in Great Britain, swift and harsh sentencing of perpetrators, and adequately resourced specialist support services for victims, survivors and their families.

Questions need to be asked about why we have such a low rate of prosecutions and convictions in Northern Ireland. Why are we failing to get cases into court when the PSNI are recommending prosecution? Do the PSNI and PPS work effectively together? Is the evidential bar set too high for this type of crime? Does our judicial system have a real understanding of this criminal behaviour? Why have we been able to get to 2018 and still not have a law on domestic violence?

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