9. Criminal justice
Significant challenges related to the criminal justice response to victims of domestic abuse were reported during the research period.
During Phase 3, domestic abuse support and advocacy organisations continued to report that court delays and rescheduling were having a significant impact on victims' stress and anxiety levels, and risk. One national organisation reported the delay in court scheduling meant some perpetrators were able to coerce their way back into victims' homes and encourage the victim's attrition/disengagement.
Consistent with the period of lockdown and earlier phases, organisations continued to report that victims felt the criminal justice response was not effective in addressing the risk posed by perpetrators. A number of support and advocacy organisations observed that victims continued to communicate dissatisfaction with perpetrators being released on undertaking, with some victims communicating that they saw 'no point' in reporting the abuse where this was the outcome. Some services reported that perpetrators were using court delays as a threat and evidence of their perceived impunity, stating to their victim that the courts or police wouldn't deal with victim's complaint. Support organisations for women involved in prostitution reported similar trends, with women reporting increased levels of violence from customers and claims customers felt they were "invincible" because women would not report violence to the police due to they themselves breaching the Coronavirus restrictions by having physical contact.
Court attendance was identified as an increasing challenge during Phase 3. Supporters' access to court was identified as an issue affecting some witnesses attending court. Organisations reported communication challenges with courts, which was inconsistent across different court areas, and in some cases victims' supporters were not permitted access to the court. It was reported that court familiarisation visits were very difficult during this period due to the social distancing and access restrictions to court, with visits only being allowed with prior authority from the court in exceptional circumstances.
Organisations also reported issues with large numbers of witnesses being cited to court, and turned away on the day of the trial diet (either on standby or with the case adjourned to a future date), due to high levels of court loading. Court advocacy services reported this was causing high levels of stress and anxiety and resulting in some victims communicating reluctance to re-attend court and/or engage with court advocacy services in future. In some cases, organisations reported clients were very anxious due to the number of other witnesses in attendance and the potential risk of Coronavirus transmission as a result of this number of people in close proximity.
Queues outside of courts, where witnesses and victims were in the same space as the accused person, was also identified as an issue, with particularly significant concerns communicated about Glasgow and Paisley courts. In some cases, victims had children with them, and there were reports from support and advocacy organisation of perpetrators queueing with their friends and family, causing further stress and anxiety for victims. One national service noted the lower numbers of court/prosecution staff meant victims could not be allowed access to the court via alternative entrances, in order to avoid contact with the accused. Locally, the organisation had made ad hoc arrangements with court staff to allow victims entry into the court building in order to avoid queues, however this was not standardised across all sheriffdoms.
Organisations reported that victims who wished access to view their statement prior to giving evidence in trial were, in some cases, unable to do so. It was believed this was due to a number of factors, namely the absence of suitable and available staff to facilitate this process. A national service reported this was a particular challenge for witnesses whose trials had been rescheduled and for whom there were long delays between the incident and providing evidence in trial.
Organisations also reported lengthy and repeated adjournments, with some adjournments being scheduled for early 2021. "Last minute adjournments" were also reported as a significant challenge, exacerbated by communication challenges that meant victims were awaiting updates on the progress of their case in the late afternoon. One organisation reported that their clients were expressing "dismay" at the lack of communication on new court dates.
Sentencing was also identified as an ongoing issue, with court advocacy organisations communicating that in addition to long and often delayed trial diets, victims perceived sentences were lenient and not effective at providing them protection from abuse.
There were a number of communications challenges reported by court advocacy organisations from across Scotland. A number of organisations reported difficulties accessing court outcomes in a timely manner. Non harassment orders (NHOs) were identified as a specific issue by court advocacy services, who noted that in a number of cases NHOs were not granted despite being sought by victims and the justification for this decision was either not on record or there was no central mechanism for advocacy organisations to access this information. Organisations reported victims (and advocacy workers) were unable to access outcomes related to special bail conditions or NHOs on the day of court, resulting in clients waiting overnight to hear outcomes and be able to safety plan based on accurate information. There were some reports of women relying on bail checks conducted by Police Scotland as their only means of being updated regarding the conditions in place. COPFS have confirmed that their Victim Information and Advice (VIA) service continue to contact victims by telephone on the day of court to advise whether an accused has been remanded in custody or released on bail, and, if the latter, to provide the details of any bail conditions in force. If VIA are unable to reach the victim by phone that day, the police will be asked to do so. There were a small number of reports of some clients experiencing long delays when attempting to contact police (non-emergency), court and prosecution services by phone. One national court support organisation also reported significant communication challenges whereby referrals to provide support to victims were received on the day of the trial and were therefore difficult or not possible to facilitate at short notice.
In relation to civil court, one organisation provided that women were receiving court outcomes but no additional information regarding the case(s). One organisation supported women by developing timelines of abuse for their use in court cases and for the purposes of support/recovery, however they reported access to information regarding women's cases from March onwards had been "incredibly difficult" and was significantly affecting this support. One organisation provided that they had observed an increase in distress calls about experiences with family court, with two organisations providing empirical examples of women reporting they felt they were being blamed for their experience of domestic abuse and the impact of the perpetrator's behaviour on their children.