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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 26 January 2022 [Draft]

Agenda: Point of Order, Portfolio Question Time, Electric Vehicle Charging Network, Budget 2022-23 (Committees’ Pre-budget Scrutiny), Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Domestic Abuse, Correction


Contents


Domestic Abuse

I remind members of the Covid-related measures that are in place and that face coverings should be worn when moving around the chamber and across the Holyrood campus.

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-01604, in the name of Katy Clark, on domestic abuse charges. The debate will be concluded without any question being put, and I ask members who wish to speak to press their request-to-speak buttons now.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament understands that there were over 33,000 charges with a domestic abuse identifier reported to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service during 2020-21; believes with concern that this is a 9% increase on the year before and the highest figure reported in five years; notes that charges reported under the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 accounted for 4.7% of all domestic abuse charges reported; understands that, in 87% of domestic abuse cases, the aggressor was male, and that one-in-four cases was classed as common assault; notes the view that the Scottish Government must analyse and evaluate the outcomes of specialist domestic abuse courts in Glasgow and Edinburgh and how they compare to outcomes in other courts, and notes the calls on the government to heed the requests from women’s aid charities for it to lay out a strategy for rolling out these specialist courts across the country.

17:07  

I very much welcome the opportunity to discuss the significant problem of domestic abuse in Scotland and how the legal system deals with such situations. First, though, I want to record my thanks to members who have signed the motion in order to enable the debate to take place. I should also say that I want to focus on the issues involved in domestic violence charges rather than on rape and sexual offence cases, which I have spoken about previously and which the Government is, of course, considering in relation to the recommendations in Lady Dorrian’s report on rape and sexual offence cases.

In 2020 to 2021, more than 33,000 charges with a domestic abuse identifier were reported to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, which is a 9 per cent increase on the previous year. About one in four of those cases was classed as common assault.

Of course, many women and girls do not go to the police. The fact is that violence against women and girls is endemic in our society. That relates to wider issues and the power relationship between men and women, but the justice system has a track record of failing to deal with in an acceptable way many of the domestic abuse cases that are taken to the authorities. Many women and girls who have suffered domestic abuse have described their experiences of the justice system as retraumatising, and it is clear that improving their experiences will require significant changes to the system.

Since the Scottish Parliament’s creation, MSPs of all political parties have attempted to highlight the issue of domestic violence and to make legislative changes to improve handling of cases. Things have changed. For example, some parts of the country now have separate facilities for domestic abuse cases so that the complainer does not have to go through the unpleasant experience of attending court. Moreover, in some cases, evidence is sometimes taken by commission, which ensures that the victim does not have to go to court. That is particularly important for young children who have to give evidence.

My motion calls on the Scottish Government to analyse and evaluate the outcomes of specialist domestic abuse courts that have been operating in some parts of the country, particularly Glasgow and Edinburgh, and to lay out a strategy for rolling out specialist abuse courts across the country. Such courts potentially offer an opportunity to massively change the way in which domestic abuse charges are dealt with, through use of trauma-informed approaches, use of specialist premises, a focus on consistent sentencing and use of specialist prosecutors to deal with cases.

When the Parliament debated a Government motion on gender-based violence on 30 November 2021, Scottish Labour lodged an amendment that called on the Scottish Government to evaluate specialist domestic abuse courts with a view to rolling them out across the country. On that occasion, the Scottish National Party voted against that amendment, but I very much hope that the Scottish Government is willing to look again at the proposal. After all, that particular vote rested on a technicality, and I hope that the Government accepts that it has the power to introduce those courts throughout the country.

Last May, the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service set up a pilot project for virtual summary criminal trials in Aberdeen and Inverness sheriff courts. After an interim report, a virtual trials national project board was established on which all interested groups were represented. In Aberdeen, the pilot was continued for only domestic abuse cases, with a remote facility being used for witnesses under the supervision of Victim Support Scotland.

Last week, the project board reported to the Lord Justice General and the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans, recommending that every sheriffdom has a dedicated specialist online court for domestic abuse cases. The report said that a virtual dedicated specialist summary court would offer advantages by increasing protection and reducing trauma for complainers; making it easier for witnesses to give evidence; offering some efficiencies through reducing the amount of travel; maintaining efficiency and consistency; and by introducing trauma-informed practices. It also said that virtual courts had an impact in mitigating delays caused by the pandemic, given that about a quarter of all outstanding summary court cases are domestic abuse cases.

Victims groups, which have been campaigning for such courts, have been positive about the pilot, and I would also point out that, in its conclusions, the report said that representation had been received from defence agents that the accused had received a fair trial. That is, of course, one of the concerns that have been expressed about virtual courts.

It is clear that the ways in which the police, courts and wider legal system have operated in the past have not delivered justice to women, and I hope that the Scottish Government will be willing to act to introduce specialist domestic violence courts. There is a debate to be had on the extent to which those courts should be virtual, and I have no doubt that the Criminal Justice Committee will be looking at that aspect over the coming weeks as it considers the Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill.

Violence—and the fear of violence—touches all women’s lives. I look forward to hearing members’ contributions, and I hope that we will get action from the Government on this issue.

17:14  

I thank Katy Clark for bringing this important topic to the chamber.

As we have heard, domestic abuse charges in Scotland have increased for the fifth consecutive year. Katy Clark mentioned a figure of 33,000 cases; in my constituency, 111 incidents were reported last year, or one incident every three days. That figure alone is staggering, but the fact is that such figures do not reveal the true extent of domestic abuse in our communities.

I recently visited Women’s Aid East and Midlothian. It was mentioned that one of the barriers to talking about the issue is getting what it sees as justice for the act that has been carried out. For a myriad of reasons, abusers are often not reported.

I will let the minister address in summing up the key point about domestic abuse courts that Katy Clark mentioned.

The scale of violence in our society has reached pandemic proportions. At its core, that violence is gender based, whether it is men’s violence against women and girls or men’s violence against men and boys. Domestic abuse that is perpetrated by men against women is rooted in women’s unequal status in society. That is at the core of the problem, and men need to say that more and more. That is part of the wider social problem of male violence against women and girls.

Research from the University of Bristol reveals that sexism and misogyny set the scene for male abusive partners’ coercive and controlling behaviours. Dr Jackson Katz’s research delves even further into the root causes of male violence against women. His work focuses predominantly on attitudes and beliefs of manhood that society actively teaches. He encourages us not to think of men who are violent towards women as pathological monsters and individual perpetrators

“Because it is our society that’s producing these abusive men on a regular basis, generation after generation, across class, race and ethnicity.”

All the influences of rape culture, sport culture, porn culture, peer culture and media culture teach men certain lessons about manhood and social norms, which are produced and reproduced at every level.

Earlier today, I met Graham Goulden, who is formerly of the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit. That was an eye-opening meeting for me. He told me that the same system produces not only men who abuse, harm and are violent towards women, but men who abuse, harm and are violent towards men. That is not said in the spirit of minimising women’s experience of male violence; rather, it illustrates that men and women have the common enemy of male violence. That recognition is important in helping us to frame male violence against women in a way that brings men into the conversation. Again, we need to do that more and more, and we have a leadership role in our Parliament to do that.

Men have been erased from much of the conversation on the subject, which is essentially about men. Campaigns such as the “Don’t be that guy” campaign are so important because domestic abuse and violence against women and girls are symptoms of the socialisation of boys and the definitions of manhood that society creates and upholds, which lead to the current outcomes.

For so long, women have been the only ones to stand up and speak out against male violence. I know men who care deeply about the issue but caring deeply is not enough. We need more men to have the courage and strength to stand up and not remain silent in the face of abuse. We need men to challenge the behaviours and attitudes that, if left alone, manifest and transform into the rape and murder of women. We need that abusive behaviour to be seen as unacceptable not just because it is illegal, but because it is wrong and unacceptable in peer culture.

As Jackson Katz has said, we need men to break the

“silence in male culture about this ongoing tragedy of men’s violence against women”.

I thank Katy Clark for lodging the motion.

17:18  

I am very pleased to speak in the debate, which has been introduced by Katy Clark. I agree with her motion, with what she said and with the very important points that Paul McLennan made about the deep-rooted nature of some of the crimes and the responsibility of men across society to do something about that.

I have faith in the new Lord Advocate, Dorothy Bain QC, who clearly has her work cut out. She has not only been left with the mess of the Rangers FC malicious prosecutions cases that were caused by her male predecessors, but has even bigger issues in respect of the backlog of tens of thousands of criminal cases and how so many women and girls are still failed by the justice system. Last month, she candidly told the Criminal Justice Committee that victims of sexual offences might not be getting justice. Her candour is welcome.

Although anyone can be a victim of domestic violence, we know that the majority of victims are female. The national procurator fiscal for domestic abuse, Moira Price, recently said that the Crown

“takes a rigorous approach to crimes of domestic abuse and stalking ... This includes a presumption in favour of prosecution where there is sufficient evidence”,

better training and prosecutors working more closely with the police.

However, I still hear far too many accounts of women being failed by the justice system. In recent times, there has been the so-called “boys club” of police officers in Moray. A female police officer reported a catalogue of alleged bullying and criminality, but her concerns were ignored.

Victims of stalking tell me how the criminal justice system exacerbates their ordeal. Manipulative men abuse our courts by using spurious excuses to string out proceedings. That can last for years, and was doing so even before Covid. It is a control tactic and is, in itself, an extension of the stalking campaign.

There is also the story of the woman whose serious domestic violence case limped through the courts for four long years. Her attacker played the system at every turn, seeking delays and giving excuses not to proceed. In the end, he was even allowed to strike a plea deal to have numerous charges either dropped or significantly watered down.

That brave woman, and many others, have told me that they would not go through that again. It is damning that they say that they would advise others in the same position not to engage with the system. Although I would not encourage that, I can see that those people have been through horrific ordeals.

Some criminals know that using the tactic known as “churn”, which is the constant delaying of cases, can result in witnesses moving on or forgetting key details, and in victims simply losing patience. There is also the practice of plea deals, which operates largely unseen by the public eye. I was pleased when the Lord Advocate recently gave a commitment, in response to a question that I asked, that plea deals will not be misused in order to meet the temptation for prosecutors to clear backlogs.

As Katy Clark is, I am interested in the report by the virtual trials national project board. Among other things, the report calls for specialist online courts to deal with domestic abuse cases. From what Ms Clark said, it sounds as if those have been successful and have been welcomed not only by victims but by legal practitioners and others who are involved in the process. The board reports that virtual trials would increase protection and reduce trauma for victims.

That is the sort of radical approach that the Lord Advocate should consider. Although she has victims on her side, and many MSPs back change, a challenge might come from the powerful legal lobby, which often seems to be culturally resistant to change. I am sure that we all wish her the best of luck.

17:22  

I thank my colleague Katy Clark for bringing this important debate to Parliament, and I commend the excellent speeches by Paul McLennan and Russell Findlay.

Domestic violence must remain at the top of Parliament’s agenda because, by its very nature, violence by men against women is committed behind closed doors. It has become more prevalent during the pandemic and, sadly, the figures are heading in the wrong direction.

The men who think that they will never be held accountable when they use physical or psychological violence must fear a robust criminal justice system. That is why specialist domestic abuse courts can play a significant role.

Male violence against women is endemic in our society. We have debated that many times. It is a global issue and it is on the rise globally.

If we are to have any chance of making serious inroads, as I have said many times, I believe that we need to start teaching our boys and girls from a young age what is and is not acceptable in relationships. I have discussed with the minister how cross-cutting programmes of justice, education and equalities that are being conducted are absolutely vital. I know that we agree on that.

There is talk of rape culture in schools and the sending of unsolicited photographs becoming commonplace. I read more about that every time I open a newspaper. The sexual violence that is inflicted on teenage girls is alarming—sadly, more so than it was a few years ago. That is something for Parliament to address. A recent report in The Sunday Post said that three out of five girls have endured some form of sexual harassment. We need a seismic shift in attitudes to reverse that trend, and we need to focus on what is happening in our schools and our education system.

I fully support the Government’s Equally Safe at School programme, which promotes healthy relationships, and I support the work of Rape Crisis Scotland. We need to hear how the programme can be rolled out across the country.

The pandemic has highlighted just how unsafe home is for many women. The United Nations declared it a “shadow pandemic”, as women across the world faced being stuck with their abusers, unable to get help or respite. Lockdown also cut off children’s access to safe spaces out of the home.

In 2020-21, the number of domestic abuse cases that were reported to the police was more than 65,000, which is a shocking statistic. When we consider that it is estimated that only one in 10 cases is reported, it gives us even more pause for thought. Specialist domestic abuse courts seem to be an appropriate way to address the magnitude of the problem of domestic violence. If we think that they are an appropriate solution, we need to ensure that they are rolled out.

Of course, domestic abuse does not only take the form of violence. Psychological abuse, such as coercive and controlling behaviour, can have a profound, damaging and long-lasting effect on an individual. It is a pattern of behaviour that is often not obvious at first, but it can do real damage. It has been a crime since 2019.

We also have to be alert to the fact that perpetrators often use social media and technology such as Apple AirTags to track their victims. Isabelle Younane from Scottish Women’s Aid said,

“Stalking and tech abuse are very real and dangerous forms of abuse—with survivors who are being stalked by their ex-partner often at risk of greatest harm.”

Given the scope that domestic abuse can take, we need specialist courts to provide the resources and expertise to deal with the issue.

I am glad to take part in the debate, although I am, obviously, sad to reflect on the figures. I know that there is, absolutely, energy behind the Government’s approach to the issue. The energy is cross-party; it is not a party issue. Sadly, it is an issue for society to deal with. It is a not problem only in Scotland, but we are leading the way. We can continue to do so by further adopting domestic abuse courts and using our specialist prosecutors and others who work in our courts to provide a solution and to make it clear to any man or woman who wants to abuse that we have a robust system in place.

17:27  

I thank Katy Clark for lodging the motion for debate today, and I commend her clear desire for action on the subject, which I share and am glad to see.

Domestic abuse has been one of the Parliament’s priorities, and there has been a sea change in public attitudes since the Parliament was formed. In the not-too-distant past, all too often the dominant view was that domestic abuse was a private matter that took place behind closed doors and was no business of the criminal law or the justice system. Thankfully, that misjudged view has been well and truly demolished—there is a broad consensus that domestic abuse is a shared issue, and that an effective justice system response is essential in protecting victims.

The vast majority of domestic abuse is committed by men against women. I think that we all now recognise that it is not a women’s issue, but women are disproportionately affected by it. Men have to take responsibility, and it is heartening to see so many men taking responsibility for their own actions, no longer being bystanders to the actions of others. That point was well made by Paul McLennan.

The Parliament has taken significant steps to improve the criminal law response to domestic abuse. In 2010, the Parliament acted swiftly to close a loophole in breach of the peace law with the introduction of a new offence of threatening or abusive behaviour. In 2016, the Parliament introduced a new statutory aggravation of domestic abuse and, in 2018, a new specific offence of domestic abuse was introduced. That has been lauded by experts who work with victims of domestic abuse as being “world-leading” and “gold standard” legislation. Countries all over the world are looking to learn from the Scottish domestic abuse offence.

The new offence captures for the first time under the criminal law the totality of what domestic abuse is for victims. Conduct that is criminalised includes physical abuse as well as psychological abuse, which is all too evident in the coercive and controlling behaviours that are displayed by perpetrators. The value of having a law that captures such insidious behaviour is that victims, and those supporting victims, can see that the law is on their side. Perpetrators will also understand that behaviour amounting to coercive and controlling domestic abuse is not tolerated and can be dealt with under the criminal law.

The motion raises important issues about how the justice system can respond to domestic abuse and the role that specialist domestic abuse courts may have. I agree with many members, including Katy Clark and Pauline McNeill, that such courts play a significant role.

It is important to briefly remind the chamber that the operation of the criminal courts is the independent responsibility of the Lord President as head of the Scottish judiciary. Parliament has enshrined that independence in statute through the Judiciary and Courts (Scotland) Act 2008. As such, it is not for the Parliament or the Scottish Government to instruct the judiciary as to how the courts should operate. Where the judiciary itself considers it appropriate for specialist courts to operate, it is right for the Parliament and the Government to consider how best that can be supported.

On 21 January, the virtual trials national project board, chaired by Sheriff Principal Pyle, published a report on the piloting of virtual summary trials, recommending that specialist online courts be set up to tackle domestic abuse cases. That report highlighted the opportunity to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on court processes for survivors of domestic abuse, as well as to reduce trauma. We will now work with justice agencies to move the recommendations forward.

A key aspect of specialist domestic abuse courts is that they guide survivors through the process to sentencing with built-in advocacy support and appropriately trained staff. Specialist courts can have a significant role to play in delivering better access to justice. That is why there are specialist domestic abuse courts operating in Glasgow and Edinburgh—they are part of the way that the judiciary considers it best to deal with such offending in those areas.

The original pilot of a specialist domestic abuse court in Glasgow, which dates back to the mid-2000s, was positively evaluated and praised by victims organisations, resulting in its permanent establishment, and other courts followed. The motion refers, rightly, to evaluation of the benefits of specialist courts. I am aware that Katy Clark was not a member of the Parliament when the new offence of domestic abuse was being debated in 2018 and when there were discussions about specialist courts. At that time, the Parliament agreed that understanding better how different types of court deal with domestic abuse was an essential element in assessing the role that specialist courts could play. That is one reason why there is a statutory reporting requirement contained in the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018, which requires the Scottish Government to publish information on the experiences of victims and witnesses in relation to the new offence. That information will be available in a series of reports, which we expect to be published later in 2022 and in 2023. Respecting the constitutional position of the Lord President, one of the reports will contain information from the Lord President as to how domestic abuse court business has been arranged to deliver efficient disposal of cases. The impact of the pandemic will permeate through the reports, from which I am sure that there will be further learning.

The motion notes that official figures reflect an increase in domestic abuse reporting—Katy Clark made that point in her speech. Although that is a stark reminder of how far we have to go to eradicate domestic abuse, it may also indicate that more victims are coming forward to make reports. Recent figures show that 84 per cent of court proceedings involving a charge under the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 are leading to a conviction, so I am encouraged that the law is doing exactly what it was intended to do.

Prioritisation of domestic abuse cases was a welcome decision taken by the Lord President early in the pandemic, as a recognition of the trauma of survivors. The Scottish Government funding of £50 million in this financial year to support the criminal courts system’s recovery from the pandemic was also an essential part of helping to deliver justice, including in domestic abuse cases.

This has been a useful debate and many important issues have been aired. I reaffirm the Scottish Government’s commitment to preventing and eradicating violence against women and girls. We will continue to support the work of justice agencies and the third sector in delivering better outcomes for survivors of domestic abuse.

Meeting closed at 17:34.