Vital domestic violence support services still not introduced - two years after inspectors warned 'no excuse' for delay
VITAL support services for victims of domestic violence - including dedicated courts - have still not been brought in two years after inspectors warned there was "no excuse" for delay.
Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJI) chief Jacqui Durkin said with police responding to domestic emergencies every 16 minutes during lockdown "this work is more urgent than it ever was".
She was speaking as a review of the 2019 `No Excuse' report revealed that just one of its recommendations has been completed.
Inspectors had recommended that a properly costed, independent domestic violence advocacy service to support victims of domestic violence and abuse crimes should be introduced within nine months.
The Department of Justice only issued the tender for the independent advocacy service in December 2020 and it is not expected to be operational before September 2021.
Inspectors are concerned estimated costs meant the long-awaited service will now "not offer victims the single-point of contact and seamless support service envisaged by stakeholders and Inspectors, at all stages of the criminal justice system journey".
CJI had also said a designated domestic violence and abuse court should be introduced in each Court Division with sufficient cases.
In March 2018 the Irish News revealed plans to roll out Derry's successful pilot court for domestic violence cases had stalled due to the lack of an assembly.
The court sees a single judge hear all domestic violence cases on a particular day of the month in a specialist listing, with `enhanced arrangements' for support services and a system ensuring victims and alleged perpetrators do not see each other before hearings as in other courts.
However, seven years after its launch, it is still confined to Derry, despite evidence the increased support for victims encourages them to remain in the notoriously difficult process.
Work to establish a domestic violence and abuse court in Belfast was also paused because of the Covid-19 pandemic and a pilot will not now begin until October or November.
Ms Durkin is "disappointed with the pace of progress" and that these two "key recommendations... remained outstanding".
"Domestic violence and abuse is a long-standing problem throughout our community that has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic with many new and repeat victims finding their homes are not a safe place, but a place of fear and anxiety during the lockdown restrictions.
"While incidents of crime fell overall as people across Northern Ireland followed the Covid-19 `stay at home' public health message, figures from 2019-20 and during the period of lockdown and restrictions from March until August 2020, showed a rise in domestic violence and abuse with Police Officers called to respond to a domestic incident every 16 minutes."
The Chief Inspector also expressed concerns about the low numbers of cases being referred to the Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conference (MARAC), where information is shared between the police, health and social services, probation and child protection representatives to protect adults and children.
She said the number being referred "were less than half the recommended levels and numbers were reducing".
"The reasons for this need to be understood and action taken to address it as a priority."
Inspectors did find improvements in the way the PSNI and Public Prosecution Service (PPS) share information and work together throught the Domestic Abuse Independent Advisory Group.
Ms Durkin welcomed how it has responded "swiftly to the urgent need for rising numbers of victims of domestic violence and abuse to access services and support as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic".
She also praised the department on the creation of the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act (Northern Ireland) 2021 as a "significant achievement... which will enable greater protection and support for victims of domestic violence and abuse including those children witnessing it and impacted by it in their homes".
However, she warned the next challenge will be its "effective implementation.. and delivery of better services and outcomes for victims and their families".