Monday, 24 January 2011

Improving access to justice for victims of domestic abuse

Rhoda Grant MSP found broad support for the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill[1] introduced earlier this year, and although some areas proved to be contentious last Wednesday as it passed the first stage of parliament scrutiny. The bill aims to increase domestic abuse victims’ access to justice and enable police and prosecutors to provide a better response to breached civil protections orders.

MSPs welcomed the proposed change to shift responsibility from the victim to the police to take action when a violent partner breaches a civil protection order. They also welcomed the proposal that would remove the existing ‘course of conduct’ requirement so that a non-harassment order can be granted when evidence of one incident of harassing behaviour is provided rather than evidence of at least two separate incidents. These provisions certainly seem a step forward in improving victims’ access to justice. It makes sense that it is the police and prosecutors responsibility to respond to perpetrators who breach civil protection orders not the responsibility of victims. It also makes sense that victims should not have to suffer repeated harassment before perpetrators are held accountable of their behaviour. It is even more pertinent when we consider that much of domestic abuse takes place behind closed doors out with the gaze of police or other professionals, meaning it can be difficult for victims to provide evidence of a pattern of harassment.

The more contentious elements of the bill relate to how access to civil protection orders should financed and how domestic abuse is defined in the bill. As it stands, victims are responsible for paying legal costs when applying for civil protection orders unless they qualify for Legal Aid. So some victims have to pay for their own protection against domestic abuse. Provisions in the bill aim to redress this by providing Legal Aid without means testing to victims applying for civil protection orders. Meaning victims would have equal access to justice regardless of their financial background and more fundamentally victims of domestic abuse would no longer have to pay for their own safety and protection – surely a step in the right direction? Unfortunately the debate revealed it is not so straightforward. Concerns were raised about the potential cost to the public purse as well as whether such a provision would contravene a defender’s human rights.[2] Both issues are no doubt important and will receive further scrutiny by the Justice Committee. Let’s hope a solution can be reached that both satisfies these concerns and also remedies the current situation where victims of domestic abuse have to pay for their own safety and protection.

Fiona Morrison, PhD student, CRFR


[2] The bill does not seek to extend non-means testing to Legal Aid to defenders. There are concerns that such a provision would contravene Article 6(1) of the ECHR.

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