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Handling Domestic Abuse Cases: A Toolkit to Aid the Development of Specialist Approaches to Cases of Domestic Abuse


3. Essential Elements Of A Specialised Response To Domestic Abuse

This chapter will identify the agencies and the working groups that are essential to a specialist approach and the essential elements of a specialist approach.

3.1 Agencies And Working Groups

3.1.1 Steering and Implementation Group

A multi-agency partnership should be established amongst statutory and non-statutory bodies under the governance of the Sheriff Principal. The role of the steering and implementation group is to decide on the type of specialist approach to be adopted and to consider strategic issues. This specifically constituted group should have high-level representation and decision-making responsibility, with key leading statutory and non-statutory membership. For example, the steering and implementation group might comprise Police, COPFS, representation from defence agents 15, Scottish Courts Service, Scottish Legal Aid Board ( SLAB), Criminal Justice Social Work, the local authority, independent advocacy for complainers, Women's Aid, Victim Support Scotland, Victim Information and Advice ( VIA), Witness Service, local NHS representation including GP and accident and emergency, Reporter to the Children's Panel, a representative from the local education department, sexual assault referral centre (where one exists) and substance misuse services 16. The role and responsibilities of the steering and implementation group should be clearly specified in protocols 17. This group should ensure effective co-ordination of partners through regular meetings and joint training 18. The steering and implementation group will be responsible for drafting operational protocols in respect of the specialist response adopted 19.

3.1.2 Operation Group

The operation group will deal with the operational issues arising from the specialist approach chosen by the steering and implementation group. The steering and implementation group should determine a clear division of responsibility between itself and the operation group. This toolkit has been drafted on the assumption that the steering and implementation group would both choose and establish the specialist approach and thereafter, the operation group would oversee the day-to-day running of that specialist approach.

The operation group might comprise all or some of the bodies represented on the steering and implementation group. As this group is responsible for dealing with 'problems' or 'issues' that may arise with the implementation of the specialist model, it should be clear what the role of the group is 20 and how issues raised should be dealt with/meetings called. This is best achieved by drafting protocols and guidance for this group. Tasks (listed below) that have been identified as essential to the development of a specialist approach should be managed either by the steering and implementation group or the operation group. This will be dependant on local decisions and protocols of responsibility.

During the Glasgow pilot the operation group was called the implementation group. It was chaired by a Sheriff. This group dealt with operational issues of the court. During the Glasgow pilot this group met sporadically. Most stakeholders were satisfied with this group and noted that it was particularly useful to those with no other means of accessing some of the bodies represented on it.

3.1.3 Police, Procurator Fiscal and Victim Advocacy

Close liaison between these agencies is essential. The joint protocol between ACPOS and COPFS21 governs the response to incidents of domestic abuse, investigation, reporting of cases, decision-making and prosecution. A focused message from the police and early involvement of the Family Protection Unit helped to promote consistency of approach during the Glasgow pilot 22. In the Glasgow pilot the Procurator Fiscal Liaison Group involved Advocacy, Support, Safety and Information Services Together ( ASSIST) the victim advocacy service used in the Glasgow pilot, the police and the dedicated procurator fiscal depute. This group met every 6-8 weeks which facilitated communication on matters such as evidence gathering, referral to victim advocacy etc. This group was evaluated as having "worked particularly well" 23.

3.1.4 Advocacy Services 24

The role of a victim advocate varies but essentially the person acts as a 'liaison, buffer and contact' between the complainer and the court. The advocate can provide information both from and to the court, report case progress to the complainer, provide support to the complainer, refer the complainer to other services, engage in outreach work in the community and co-ordinate information sharing and the development of protocols amongst stakeholders 25. Protocols must be developed to govern the operation of the advocacy service 26. Factors to be considered when deciding on who should provide independent advocacy in criminal justice settings and what its remit should be include:

  • The role of Victim Information and Advice ( VIA). The limitations on it providing independent advocacy, as it is part of Crown Office and information gathered would be governed by the rules on disclosure. Where independent advocacy is to be appointed protocols will require to be drawn up between both agencies 27;
  • The current role and remit of Victim Support Scotland. Co-ordination of VSS with any independent advocacy service appointed and the development of protocols between both agencies 28;
  • The service provided by the Witness Service;
  • The expertise of these existing providers of support to victims who are part of the criminal justice process and the nature of that support;
  • The availability of current providers and the consequences of this for initial contact with victims and provision of information to the custody court and thereafter; and
  • The cost of advocacy support and possible sources of funding. Some examples of this are contained in Appendix A.

3.1.5 Scottish Legal Aid Board ( SLAB)

SLAB was an important partner in the Glasgow pilot court. Special provision at the domestic abuse court ensured that there was a dedicated duty solicitor for domestic abuse cases. In addition to this provision, if an accused's usual solicitor represented them, rather than receiving only 'advice and assistance' legal aid, a system was introduced whereby legal aid was automatically granted on a 'time in line' basis. This meant that the accused's solicitor was paid for consulting with their client, waiting in court for their client's case to call, negotiating any adjusted plea with the procurator fiscal depute and representing the accused when the case called. There were a higher number of guilty pleas at first appearance in the Glasgow pilot court (21%) than in the comparison court (18%).

3.2 Essential Elements Of A Specialist Approach

3.2.1 Agreed definition of domestic abuse across all agencies 29

Members of the steering and implementation groups must have a shared definition and understanding of domestic abuse.

3.2.2 Identification of cases

Systems must be in place for each agency - police, prosecution, Scottish Courts Service, probation services - to identify domestic abuse cases and to mark electronic and/or hard copy files as domestic abuse cases 30.

3.2.3 Victim and child friendly court

Court security should be reviewed to ensure that victim and witness safety is prioritised e.g., separate entrances and exits where possible, separate waiting areas should be provided and all staff should be trained in respect of domestic abuse including those staff providing court security. In the absence of such facilities and following a safety audit, the court must be able to demonstrate that systems are in place to ensure victims' safety on arrival at court, during and after the trial or any other diet and on departure. Courts should have 'special facilities' in place such as video links, screens etc. for vulnerable witnesses 31. Courts should be sensitive to the cultural diversity of complainers and witnesses. Courts should pay attention as to whether those citing complainers and witnesses have provided suitable resources e.g., translators. Courts should ideally provide child-care facilities for victims of domestic abuse attending court, although resource constraints may affect levels of provision 32.

3.2.4 Protocols for risk assessment

Risk assessment is a means to identify those victims who are most at risk of experiencing domestic abuse in the future. Accurate risk assessments provide important information which can aid the provision of better service to victims because their specific needs are identified; they help identify those victims in particular need of help who require more assistance from police or other agencies, and when embedded within a multi-agency framework, risk assessments help more agencies become aware of the most dangerous offenders, helping to keep their workers safe 33.

Responsibility for the initial risk assessment should be delegated to one agency e.g., police (as occurs in Cardiff), or the victim advocacy service (as occurs in Glasgow). Risk factors found in past research include; past physical abuse, escalation of abuse, weapons, unemployment, alcohol and/or drug abuse, pregnancy, psychological abuse, separation, threats, sexual abuse, suicidal thoughts and the victim's own fear or concern for her own safety 34. Analysis of the risk assessment data gathered during the Glasgow court pilot found that the three most frequently occurring risk factors were that the perpetrator behaves in a very jealous or controlling way, that there was a pending or on-going relationship separation and that the abuse had become worse or was happening more often 35.

The initial risk assessment should be carried out as soon after the domestic abuse incident as possible, ideally within 24 hours, to ensure that this information is available to the court and other agencies. Thereafter all agencies should gather information relevant to risk assessment and this information should be shared 36. It is crucial to have multi-agency risk assessment and risk management procedures in place across statutory and voluntary sector partners (for victims, perpetrators and children). The main aim of risk assessment is to identify serious cases of domestic abuse that can then be addressed through a Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conference ( MARAC) 37 or other type of Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangement ( MAPPA). To hold a MARAC requires 38, at a minimum, that:

  • The agency which has responsibility for carrying out the initial risk assessment must identify the very high-risk victims;
  • This agency must circulate the details of these victims and their children to participating agencies (the MARAC 'list');
  • Police/ prosecutors bring the files for these victims to the meeting;
  • Minutes of the MARAC meeting are taken and circulated to all participating agencies;
  • Protocols should be developed which specify which agencies will be invited to a MARAC. These protocols should govern responsibility for arranging and taking minutes of meetings (police in Cardiff, ASSIST in Glasgow) and sharing information between agencies.

Additionally, it is expected that:

  • All participating agencies will check the MARAC list against their own agency's records, in order to collate all evidence available for victims, accused and children;
  • Some agencies, e.g., victim advocacy, will also bring victims' files to the meeting;
  • Representatives will take notes at the MARAC in order to delegate actions to workers;
  • Actions agreed at the MARAC will be taken;
  • Individual files held at agencies will be updated.

The agencies involved in the Cardiff MARAC included Police, Social Services, Probation, Health and Education (where relevant) and the WSU (who provide victim advocacy in that area). Other statutory or voluntary agencies that may also be invited depending on whether they have involvement with any of the victims or their children include; Youth Offending Teams, Community Psychiatric Nurse, Community Midwifery, child protection representative, NSPCC, and Women's Aid 39.

In terms of resources, much of the work associated with the Cardiff and Glasgow MARACs is administrative and is performed in addition to individuals' everyday workloads. MARACs were found to encourage and achieve information sharing between agencies, identifying key contacts within agencies and contributed to victim's safety 40. An evaluation found that 66% of victims referred to the MARAC in Cardiff did not have any additional police complaints or police call outs according to police records and 63% of victims interviewed reported that they had not experienced any further abuse 41.

3.2.5 Specialist personnel

Specialist personnel in the form of trained judges, prosecutors, court administrators, victim advocates and other key personnel e.g., probation services, are essential to a specialist domestic abuse approach 42. If there is no dedicated/specialist victim support service in place, existing support services must have referral avenues to specialist services that have the capacity to provide casework-based support to victims 43.

3.2.6 Protocols for inter-agency working

Protocols outlining the roles and responsibilities of each agency and their inter-relationships are required 44. In addition there must be protocols governing information sharing between agencies. All partners must be signed up to this protocol, as it is essential that information is shared 45. Increased liaison between agencies may result in an increased workload for the staff involved.

3.2.7 Attitudes to domestic abuse

Judges should ensure that the tone of the court underlines that domestic abuse is being treated seriously 46.

3.2.8 Court listing

This involves implementing the types of specialist approach chosen by the steering group. Whether the type of specialist approach chosen is clustering or fast-tracking it is crucial to have a recognisable system in place which demonstrates that domestic abuse cases are being prioritised above other cases 47. There must be guidelines in place to prioritise domestic abuse trials when they are listed with other trials 48. This may not be possible where statutory time limits apply or other trials involve child or vulnerable witnesses. Court lists should be made available to the victim advocate service.

3.2.9 Integrated information systems

Protocols and systems should be in place to ensure information sharing between agencies. For example, use of information technology links, or other means of communication, between domestic abuse courts and community based service providers allows judges to more effectively monitor compliance with court orders and allows different users varying levels of access to the information held on the system 49.

3.2.10 Links with civil/family courts for intelligence purposes 50.

While domestic abuse is a criminal matter it has many implications for civil issues such as custody, contact, residence, interdicts. Sheriffs hearing civil matters need to be fully aware of criminal matters and vice versa 51. A specialist response requires that liaison between the civil and criminal courts takes place to ensure that any court orders e.g., special bail conditions, do not contradict existing civil orders. In addition, liaison is required to notify the complainer/victim of the end of special bail conditions to allow a civil protection order e.g., interdict to be applied for. This will reduce the possibility of time periods when complainers/victims are unprotected.

3.2.11 Evaluation and accountability

Methods and responsibility for evaluation should be in place from the outset 52. Evaluation necessitates tracking of domestic abuse cases from report to the police to final outcome. This should include sentence outcomes 53. This task is best allocated to one agency 54. There should also be a monitoring system to monitor gender, ethnicity and disability of victims and accused 55. It is also essential for each agency to collect and collate information on their handling of cases dealt with by the specialist approach. There should be responsibility and a system in place for translating monitoring data into performance reports. These should be used to identify trends and gaps to allow performance monitoring by the implementation group 56.

3.2.12 Ongoing training

Training should be ongoing and multi-agency 57. Separate judicial training may be deemed appropriate although other jurisdictions have reported benefits from judges being included in multi-agency training 58. Specialist dedicated staff should all be appropriately trained. In the absence of specialist dedicated staff, all staff must be trained. Training should also be provided for student police officers, patrol officers, call handlers, control room staff, court officers and security staff. A programme of multi-agency events involving all agencies contributes to the development of consistency in attitudes and approach to domestic abuse. The Glasgow pilot court evaluation noted that almost all of those who undertook preparation for the pilot in the form of discussions, information sharing or specific training found it to be useful 59. Essential to the success of specialist service provision and training, is that all participants have a shared understanding of domestic abuse 60.

3.2.13 Compliance monitoring

Offender compliance with the disposal made by the court should be monitored. The method of doing this is at the discretion of the sentencer but could be achieved by submission of reports to the court or review hearings to monitor defendant's compliance with court orders 61. Systems should be in place to ensure early identification of breached orders 62.

3.2.14 Sentencing

Sentencing should be consistent and promote accountability 63. Sentencing options should include perpetrator programmes. It is essential to have an established programme, with capacity to take referrals from the court. The evaluation of specialist courts in England and Wales suggested that it is desirable to have non- CJS programmes in place and for these programmes to have partner and children modules in them 64. The perpetrator programme used during the Glasgow pilot court, the CHANGE programme, was delivered by social work services 65. Waiting times for programmes was found to be an issue in both the English and Welsh and Glasgow pilot court evaluations 66. Delivery of perpetrator programmes to meet demand has been described as requiring access to sustained mainstream funding or at least plans in place for funding beyond initial set-up 67. The evaluation of the Glasgow pilot court notes that the cost of a two-year probation order is £3000 - £3,400 and where attendance at a CHANGE programme is a condition of probation, this incurs an additional cost of around £800 per participant. During the Glasgow pilot, men sentenced in the domestic abuse court were prioritised for CHANGE programmes which resulted in greatly increased waiting times for men sentenced in other courts 68.