Prosecution service 'must do more' to support victims of domestic abuse

Inspectors found not enough is being done to communicate with victims or to support their engagement in the justice process.

Prosecution service ‘must do more’ to support victims of domestic abuse, according to new report Getty Images

The prosecution service in Scotland must do more to engage with and support individual victims when preparing and prosecuting domestic abuse cases, according to a new report.

HM Inspectorate of Prosecution in Scotland (IPS) carried out an in-depth review of the prosecution of domestic abuse cases at sheriff summary level.

A report published on Wednesday (April 17) notes tackling violence against women and girls is a strategic priority for the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS).

IPS found those working at COPFS are aware of the need to respond robustly to reports of domestic abuse, and that cases of domestic abuse are being prioritised for early trial diets.

But inspectors also found in too many cases, not enough is being done to communicate with victims and to support victims to engage in the justice process.

Efforts to enhance engagement with victims are being trialled in some areas but require to be rolled out nationally and implemented more effectively.

Inspectors also noted that victims were not always kept informed of developments in their case.

Prosecution of domestic abuse cases under reviewFeixianhu via iStock

HM Inspectorate of Prosecution in Scotland has made 27 recommendations for improvement.

HM Chief Inspector or Prosecution in Scotland, Laura Paton, said: “The picture that emerges from our inspection is of a service committed in principle to tackling domestic abuse and supporting victims, but which is struggling to put this commitment into practice in every case and to keep pace with increasing expectations.

“Indeed, many of our recommendations relate to matters that are already required by policy or processes, but which are not yet being delivered routinely.

“The justice system can seem complex and opaque to those not familiar with it.

“Communication with the victim is key.

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

As part of its inspection, IPS conducted a review of 60 domestic abuse cases that had been prosecuted across Scotland.

In these cases, they assessed the overall quality of communication with 80% of the victims to be unsatisfactory.

Inspectors spoke to 23 victims of domestic abuse, as well as over 50 domestic abuse advocacy workers, and more than 60 COPFS staff including prosecutors, senior leaders and those working for COPFS’s Victim Information and Advice (VIA) service and in administrative roles.

Inspectors found the current model for preparing domestic abuse cases at summary level involved cases passing from prosecutor to prosecutor at different stages, which they said led to a lack of ownership.

This lack of ownership, along with a lack of preparation time, results in many domestic abuse cases not being prepared as well as they should be.

In some instances, this led to delays, while in others it resulted in cases being discontinued at a late stage.

Ms Paton said: “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, for example, it was known from the police report 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 as though the approach was one of hoping for the best, without sufficient steps being taken to achieve a positive outcome.”

Making sure prosecutors have adequate time to prepare cases was among other areas identified by inspectors where COPFS needs to improve.

Ms Paton said: “We heard from deputes that they often lack sufficient time to prepare cases for trial to the standard they would like.

“The high volume of cases scheduled in court each day meant trial preparation was often done the evening before the trial, after spending the day in court.

“Some were worried they were providing a poor service to victims.”

As part of the review, inspectors compared the standard approach to the prosecution of summary level domestic abuse, with alternative approaches used in Glasgow and Dundee.

In Glasgow, a dedicated Domestic Abuse Court operates in the city.

In September 2022, Dundee became one of three areas in Scotland – along with Hamilton and Paisley – to introduce a summary case management pilot which aims to reduce the number of cases that are set down for trial unnecessarily.

Inspectors found that in both Glasgow and Dundee, there were examples of better practice compared to the service being delivered in the rest of Scotland under the standard summary prosecution procedure.

Crown OfficeiStock

In Glasgow, the quality of reports submitted by the police to COPFS was consistently better than elsewhere.

These reports better supported prosecutorial decision making and had a lasting impact on how cases subsequently progressed through the prosecution process.

In Glasgow too, inspectors found having a dedicated team of deputes prosecuting cases provided an opportunity for them to develop expertise in managing domestic abuse cases.

Fewer cases were being timetabled for the Glasgow Domestic Abuse Court than for other courts in Glasgow which allowed deputes more preparation time, including time to meet with victims. Average case journey times in Glasgow were also shorter than elsewhere.

In Dundee, inspectors heard the submission of key evidence by the police at an earlier stage aided prosecutorial decision making and could lead to pleas being tendered earlier in proceedings.

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 at court.

“We welcome the contribution COPFS has made to the pilot, including working well with other justice agencies.”

While there were examples of good practice in both Glasgow and Dundee, the two areas also experienced many of the challenges found elsewhere in Scotland, such as not addressing issues at an early stage of case preparation and inadequate communication with victims.

Ms Paton said: “Our findings suggest there is no one approach which is consistently better than others. Rather, each approach has features which contribute to the more effective management of summary domestic abuse cases.

“In our report we have highlighted those features which COPFS should consider implementing across its service.”

The report also highlights the need for COPFS to work with its partners, particularly the police and the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service, to improve victims’ overall experience of the justice system.

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.”

The Lord Advocate has accepted a report into how domestic abuse is prosecuted, which has emphasised that the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service must speed up the work it is doing to improve the service it gives to victims.

The report assessed the work of COPFS in the management and prosecution of domestic abuse cases that are heard by sheriff without a jury. The independent HM Inspectorate of Prosecution in Scotland made 27 recommendations for COPFS. The Lord Advocate has thanked the Inspectorate for the report, and accepted the recommendations, with work underway to make changes.

Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain KC said: “The report shares powerful personal experiences of those affected by domestic abuse. I would like to acknowledge the strength of the victims who contributed to this inspection. I understand how valuable their experience is and am focused on change to act on what they say.

“Appalling escalating instances of domestic abuse have led to the deaths of victims. Almost all victims of domestic abuse are women, girls and children. This is the reality which we must confront. 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.”

Dr Emma Forbes, Procurator Fiscal for Domestic Abuse, shares more of what is being delivered in 2024 by COPFS: “We are focused on three key areas of change this year. Improving our service is a long-term project, but where we have identified changes which can be made quickly we have been doing so.

“A new approach taken by COPFS as part of changes in pilot areas, has been to engage at an earlier stage with victims of domestic abuse by offering better, proactive communications with prosecutors.

“We have been investing in digital transformation to improve access to information about cases and guidance about what to expect – to better equip victims to feel more informed and engaged in the justice process.

“We want our people, at every level, to be equipped with the confidence and skills to engage with and listen to victims, and to respond to the many forms domestic abuse takes. We have been building on and are prioritising the provision of training.

This means that all our people will have access to specialist training which is relevant to the different knowledge and skills roles need to respond effectively to the impact of trauma and gender-based violence.

“The report has emphasised the value of COPFS’ work with partners which has allowed a pilot scheme for summary case management. This new approach means earlier decision making, enhanced evidence-gathering and robust judicial management of cases. This has reduced the number of adjournments in domestic abuse cases and minimised anxious waiting times for victims. 

“This early and effective intervention by prosecutors and our partners in pilot areas to tackle offending and enable victims to engage effectively in the justice process. We have already expanded this approach to Glasgow Sheriff Court and will do o 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.”

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