Abuse bill set to pass into legislation
AS the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Bill is due to have its final reading in the assembly, Justice Minister Naomi Long says it represents "a step change" in how abuse is dealt with in Northern Ireland.
The long awaited legislation redefines the definition of abuse for the first time, beyond violence to include coercive and controlling behaviour along with financial and emotional abuse.
Northern Ireland is the last region on both islands to have specific coercive control laws.
The assembly will debate the bill on Monday. With widespread political support it is almost certain to pass the final reading and become law soon afterwards.
A person convicted of the worst offences could then face up to 14 years in prison.
The draft law includes the creation of a new domestic abuse offence, with use of children to abuse a partner, now an aggravating factor.
Ms Long said "people should start feeling the impact of the new legislation" very soon after it receives Royal Assent and is placed formally into law.
"The big difference is after a long wait, and it has been a very long wait, we have abuse - not just violence - in legislation," she said.
"It picks up on abuse by partners, former partners or close family members, which is again a wider definition.
"It also picks up on emotional, financial, sexual and psychological abuse."
The suspension of Stormont powersharing for three years delayed the legislation, which had previously been planned under former Justice Minister Claire Sugden.
The justice committee had expressed concerns that the issue of legal aid for victims was not properly addressed in the legislation and would mean that protective orders would still be financially prohibitive for the most vulnerable victims.
Mrs Long said that issue is now being "worked through".
"I'm confident what we have at the moment, in terms of the legislation, a good piece of law.
"I'm committed to support what the committee's intention was and that was really to stop people being able to abuse a partner through the court system, where a partner who has access to legal aid and continually drags their abused partner into court in order to exert coercive control."
Despite the pandemic, Ms Long said the abuse bill was a priority for her team.
"It's a tribute to the department and to the assembly and committee in particular who prioritised work around domestic abuse.
"Our experience of lockdown drove home the point, that the home is not a safe place for people necessarily."
She added that she hoped the new legislation would give victims "the courage and confidence to come forward".