Northern Ireland news

Ministers publish latest Domestic and Sexual Abuse Action Plan

A raft of measures have been agreed by ministers as part of their seven-year a cross-department strategy to stop domestic and sexual violence and abuse in the north

A BEHAVIOURAL change programme for violent offenders convicted of domestic abuse against their partners or ex-partners referred before sentencing is to be rolled out across Northern Ireland.

The extension of the Derry pilot is among a raft of measures agreed by ministers as part of their seven-year cross-department strategy to stop domestic and sexual violence and abuse in the north.

Ministers for Health, Justice, Communities, Education and Finance have published the action plan for year six of the strategy.

It comes a week after heavy criticism from the Criminal Justice Inspectorate (CJI) that vital support services for victims of domestic violence have still not been brought in two years after inspectors warned there was "no excuse" for delay.

Ministers have now pledged to make sure the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings bill is operational by end of 2021, with a media awareness campaign and training.

However, among their plans is the introduction of a new Advocacy Support Service for victims of domestic and sexual abuse - which CJI inspectors have warned is two years late and 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".

The proposed introduction of Sexual Offences Legal Advisors to provide general legal advice to victims of serious sexual offences is also something that was `urgent' two years ago.

The departments will "continuing to develop" the Identification and Referral to Improve Safety training and support programme with family doctors - with some practices already "fully trained".

They are to bring in regulations to introduce Operation Encompass, already existing within English police forces to "ensure all children experiencing domestic abuse receive timely support in their school, no matter where in the world the child lives".

Also planned is the establishment of an `Early Intervention cross departmental working group' and "preparatory work on developing legislation on Domestic Abuse Protection Notices and Orders" - unlikely to be in place until 2022.

They will commission research to consider the extension of the Sanctuary Scheme, which brings together different agencies in a victim centred initiative which aims to enable households at risk of violence to remain safely in their own homes.

Ministers said they will give fund for emergency refuge provision, other accommodation-based services and floating support services as well as other core services including advocacy, the Domestic and Sexual Abuse Helpline, MARACs and the Rowan.

Health Minister Robin Swann insists there has been achievements over the past year.

"Despite the unprecedented challenges presented by Covid-19, essential support services have remained fully available and new initiatives, such as the `Ask for Ani' pharmacy code word scheme, have been introduced to provide additional routes for victims and survivors to access support," he said.

Justice Minister Naomi Long said her department "has driven forward important work", including enacting legislation for a new domestic abuse offence.

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