A specialist domestic violence court has been established to fast-track a growing number of abuse cases through the court system. Guidelines for the new court include ambitious timelines for police and prosecutors to investigate and bring charges.
In the most serious incidents, involving physical injury or threats with a weapon, police must submit a file to prosecutors within five days of the incident being reported. The Department of Public Prosecutions then has three days to make a decision on charges.
The new system, outlined in a memo published last week, aims to ensure domestic violence cases proceed from charge to trial within a matter of weeks. The goal is to prevent cases from falling apart because of victims retracting statements.
The court was established in response to a recommendation made by a U.K. criminal justice adviser in a review of the Summary Courts carried out in 2015.
Claire Wetton, of the U.K. Crown Prosecution Service, warned that too many cases were collapsing because victims withdrew their complaints as cases dragged on, in some instances for a year or longer.
A memorandum of understanding, signed by police, prosecutors, the Department of Community Rehabilitation and the courts, published last week, sets out the responsibilities of each agency in handling domestic violence cases.
It sets out how police should investigate reports of domestic violence. It emphasizes that officers should not focus solely on statements from the victim, and should seek to gather as much corroborating evidence as possible to enable the proceedings to continue even if the victim is reluctant or unwilling to give evidence.
It also includes a commitment from prosecutors that they will “not make assumptions that calling the victim as a witness is the only way to prove a case.”
The MOU requires police to make a speedy referral for victims in domestic abuse cases to support agencies.
The police’s Family Support Unit commits to agree on “safety plans” for victims, and bring in the Department of Community Rehabilitation or other agencies where appropriate.
Inspector Kevin Ashworth, manager of the RCIPS Family Support Unit, said the aim of the new system, which started last week, is to make sure domestic violence cases progress “efficiently and expeditiously” through the criminal justice system.
“It is about fast-tracking these cases, especially high-risk cases, so they are dealt with quickly and efficiently. It is also about making sure the advocacy and support services are brought in to the picture early, to ensure the victim gets access to the right intervention and support services as early as possible,” he said.
Suzanne Bothwell, chief officer in the department of Judicial Administration, said the MOU sought to ensure a “seamless inter-agency approach” in high-risk and serious domestic violence cases “from complaint to completion” before the court.
“The MOU also allows for persons who have alleged that they are victims of high-risk domestic violence to receive early support from the Department of Children and Family Services, where they will have access to counselling and other interventions to support their safety and general well-being,” Ms. Bothwell added. “This category of persons are viewed as highly vulnerable and at risk of serious violence, therefore the MOU is meant to reduce risk and ensure that these cases are treated with the seriousness and priority that they deserve.”
As well as recommending specialist training for officers, lawyers and magistrates handling domestic violence cases, the memo establishes guidelines for court proceedings, including separate witness waiting areas and increased security to keep victims safe.
It also sets out responsibilities for the courts after sentencing, including monitoring offenders and ordering progress reports in cases where rehabilitation programs have been ordered.
In summary, the memo sets out five main aims: to improve court efficiency and victim safety; to promote informed and consistent judicial decision-making; protect the rights of all concerned; and increase confidence in the criminal judicial system.
No one from the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions responded to requests for comment on the new system.