New abuse law 'held up by lack of NI Assembly'

Image source, Getty Images

A new law designed to better tackle domestic abuse in Northern Ireland is being held up by the lack of an assembly, a charity has warned.

Women's Aid said the law had been specifically drafted to deal with both physical and emotional abuse.

Jan Melia, from the organisation, said it was "hugely frustrating" that it was "just sitting there gathering dust".

The new law recognised that domestic abuse happened over time and for a long time, she added.

According to statistics published on the PSNI website, there were 29,166 domestic abuse incidents record in 2016-17, the most in more than a decade.

However, the level of domestic abuse crimes recorded dropped to 13,933, in comparison to 14,073 in 2015-16.

In 2016-17, 69% of domestic abuse crime victims were female and 31% were male.

During the same year, more than 50% of relationships between domestic abuse victims and offenders were categorised as current or ex spouse/partner.

Coercive control model

Image caption,
Jan Melai said it was hugely frustrating draft legislation had not yet been implemented

Jan Melia says there is currently no single piece of legislation that describes domestic abuse.

"What we have is different pieces of law that have a domestic motivation and are cobbled together to create a case," she said.

The new law would put domestic abuse "up there", she said, and would give police and the courts "more tools to their armoury" in terms of prosecutions.

"The legislation is based on the coercive control model," she said.

Image caption,
The Bar Council for NI held a seminar on domestic violence on Friday

"It's recognition that violence happens as part of an ongoing continuum of behaviour.

"For example, a physical assault can happen and then there's a period where emotional abuse happens, but there's no physical assault and then physical assault comes back."

Ms Melia added: "I would like the law out there... and with that a whole campaign about emotional abuse.

"Women tell us they don't often recognise abuse until it become physical but by then it is often too late.

"What we want to say to women is emotional abuse is abuse and this piece of legislation will help do that."

Reports every 18 minutes

A seminar was held in Belfast on Friday by the Bar Council for NI, to discuss "developments in national law for protecting and supporting women who have suffered gender violence".

Speaking after the conference former police deputy chief constable, Judith Gillespie, told the BBC that domestic abuse incidents are reported to the police every 18 minutes.

The now independent advisor added that incidents are "hugely underreported" and that the overall figures "is much bigger".

Image caption,
Judith Gillespie said police receive reports of domestic abuse incidents every 18 minutes, with many more unreported

Ms Gillespie said that, prior to the collapse of the executive in January 2017, draft legislation was formed which recognised coercive and controlling behaviour.

"Unfortunately in the absence of an executive, those new pieces of legislation haven't been passed yet, although they do exist in England and Wales," she added.

"We have the opportunity to learn from England and Wales, but it's a real shame we are not moving forward in passing those new pieces of legislation which could protect victims."

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland's Presiding District Judge, Fiona Bagnall told the BBC 60% of violent offences with which she deals in court have a domestic setting.

Image caption,
Judge Bagnall said domestic abuse was a "huge problem" in society

"It is a huge problem in our society," she said.

"The big difficulty is the complainant tends to withdraw complaints and evidence.

"There are lots of reasons - fear, reconciling with their partner, feeling intimidated by their partner, family pressures - all of those pressures and stresses play on the complainant."

The Department of Justice said that, while new legislation can only be taken forward once a minister is in post, the department continues to work with key stakeholders including Women's Aid, the police and the Public Prosecution in the development of a new bill to address domestic abuse.

"Within that work, provisions are being developed to provide the police with the opportunity to intervene in the early stages of abuse and also enable prosecutions to be taken forward that may not currently be possible," said a department spokesman.