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Domestic abuse victims given inadequate support by courts, review finds

Glasgow Sheriff Court where a pilot scheme which aims to resolve domestic abuse cases early has been extended (Jane Barlow/PA)
Glasgow Sheriff Court where a pilot scheme which aims to resolve domestic abuse cases early has been extended (Jane Barlow/PA)

Domestic abuse victims are not being given sufficient support in the lead-up to cases reaching court, a review has found.

HM Inspectorate of Prosecution in Scotland (IPS) carried out an in-depth review of the prosecution of domestic abuse cases at sheriff summary level and found not enough was being done to communicate with victims and to offer support.

Inspectors warned that victims were not always kept informed about developments and said poor communication from the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) could undermine trust in the justice system, and made 27 recommendations.

The review found that Glasgow, which has a specialist domestic abuse court, and Dundee had the best regional working practices but still faced problems.

The report said an attitude of “hope for the best” was common and warned prosecutors were “worried they were providing poor service” to survivors.

HM chief inspector of prosecution in Scotland, Laura Paton, said: “The picture that emerges is of a service committed in principle to tackling domestic abuse but which is struggling to put this commitment into practice in every case.

“Many of our recommendations relate to matters that are already required by policy or processes, but are not yet being delivered. The justice system can seem complex and opaque to those not familiar with it.

“Poor communication risks victims becoming unsupportive of the prosecution and losing confidence in the justice system overall.”

A review of 60 domestic abuse prosecutions assessed communication with 80% of victims to be unsatisfactory, the report found.

Inspectors spoke to 23 victims, as well as more than 50 domestic abuse workers, and more than 60 COPFS staff including prosecutors, senior leaders and administration staff working for the Victim Information and Advice (VIA) service.

Inspectors found the current model for preparing domestic abuse cases at summary level involved cases passing from  multiple prosecutors, leading to a “lack of ownership” which, combined with a lack of preparation, resulted in many domestic abuse cases not being prepared as well as they should be.

Some cases were discontinued at a late stage, the report said.

Ms Paton added: “In too many cases we reviewed, a lack of ownership and a failure to address issues promptly during case preparation led to delayed or poor outcomes.

“In some cases it was known that the victim may not support a prosecution, yet no proactive steps were taken to address this, such as providing additional support or reassurance.

“It sometimes appeared the approach was one of hoping for the best, without steps taken to achieve a positive outcome.”

Ensuring prosecutors had adequate time to prepare cases was among other areas of improvement identified by inspectors.

Ms Paton said: “We heard they often lack time to prepare cases to the standard they would like. The high volume of cases scheduled in court meant trial preparation was often done the evening before.  Some were worried they were providing a poor service to victims.”

Inspectors compared the standard approach to the prosecution of summary level domestic abuse with alternative approaches used in Glasgow and Dundee which were found to be “examples of better practice” than other regions in Scotland.

A dedicated domestic abuse court operates in Glasgow, which was found to have “consistently better” working practice than elsewhere, while Dundee – one of three areas in Scotland to introduce a summary case management pilot which aims to cut the number of cases set down for trial unnecessarily – was also praised.

The quality of reports submitted by the police to COPFS in Glasgow “better supported prosecutorial decision making and had a lasting impact on how cases subsequently progressed through the prosecution process”, it was said.

The report praised specialist prosecutors in Glasgow, saying it “provided an opportunity to develop expertise in managing domestic abuse cases”, adding that fewer cases were being timetabled for the Glasgow domestic abuse court, which allowed preparation time, including to meet victims.

In Dundee, inspectors heard the submission of key evidence by the police at an earlier stage helped prosecutors and could lead to pleas being entered earlier.

However, both cities faced the same problems as other regions, including addressing issues at an early stage of case preparation and inadequate communication with victims.

Ms Paton said: “The summary case management pilot offers opportunities to bring cases to a conclusion at an earlier stage.

“This benefits victims and witnesses who may not need to give evidence. In our report we have highlighted those features which COPFS should consider implementing across its service.”

Ms Paton added: “COPFS is committed to making the improvements needed and work is already underway to address our recommendations, which I welcome.

“We would encourage victims of domestic abuse to seek out the help available from support organisations, whether or not they have chosen to report abuse to the police.”

Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain KC acknowledged “the strength of the victims”, adding: “I understand how valuable their experience is and am focused on change to act on what they say.

“For women to be confident to report crime they have suffered they must be sure they will be treated with empathy by the justice system and will not let be down. This report recognises that we must do more to secure that trust.

“COPFS has not always got it right in the way it communicates with victims and that is a matter of profound regret to me. This report contains many criticisms and does not show an organisation working as I want it to.

“I meet many amazing procurator fiscal staff who are dedicated to serving vulnerable victims. The challenge that I, and the leadership of COPFS, have is to inspire all our people to deliver a prosecution service informed by trauma.

“Whilst there is much to do, there is a clear and ambitious pathway of work transforming how prosecutors respond to an epidemic of domestic abuse. It is of the utmost importance to me as Lord Advocate that this work is advanced without delay.”

Emma Forbes, procurator fiscal for domestic abuse, said the new approach of the pilot scheme for summary case management “means earlier decision making, enhanced evidence-gathering and robust judicial management of cases”.

She added: “This has reduced the number of adjournments in domestic abuse cases and minimised anxious waiting times for victims.

“We have already expanded this approach to Glasgow Sheriff Court and will do more across Scotland throughout 2024.

“As Scotland’s prosecutors, we want to make sure that we achieve the best possible resolutions for victims.

“We will continue to address the recommendations and areas for improvement that IPS have highlighted.”

A spokesperson for the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service said: “We will study this report and consider any improvements which can be made, while continuing to work with judicial partners, to provide a trauma-informed approach in domestic abuse cases.”