Domestic abusers 'exploiting Scottish criminal justice system'

Researchers at Glasgow Caledonian University found that survivors felt 'alienated and demeaned'.

Domestic abusers are exploiting Scottish criminal justice system, says GCU study iStock
Domestic abusers are exploiting the Scottish justice system, GCU study warns.

Domestic abusers are able to exploit the Scottish criminal justice system, a new study has warned.

Survivors felt “alienated and excluded” from the justice process, even with the introduction of the new Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 (DASA).

The introduction of DASA put new safeguards in place and criminalised psychological domestic abuse and coercive, controlling behaviour.

In the study carried out by researchers at Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) women reported that perpetrators were able to breach their bail, interdicts and Non-Harassment Orders without criminal justice intervention.

The study, funded by the Scottish Government’s Justice Analytical Services Unit, is part of a larger project looking at women’s experiences of the criminal justice system.

A total of 132 women took part in the survey. Twenty-nine had made initial contact with the criminal justice system after DASA was introduced.

The survey also looked at their experiences with police while reporting abuse, both positive and negative.

One woman recalled the time a chief inspector told her that “if your father had skelpt your arse, your husband wouldn’t have to do it now”.

This experience had consequences beyond the encounter. She said: “The doctor wanted to charge my husband … I refused after the chief inspector’s words the night before.”

Another recounted: “The cops who attended were dismissive and said they could not do anything even if the perpetrator was standing at my window whilst they were in attendance.”

Furthermore, despite the DASA’s explicit recognition of coercive control, after reporting to the police one women was left feeling she would need to evidence physical violence to get the intervention she needed to feel safe.

She said: “[I felt] less safe: I would have to wait until my ex hit me or broke something to file another report.”

Dr Nancy Lombard, reader in Sociology and Social Policy at GCU, said: “Women often felt the perpetrator maintained their control and were actively empowered by the system even when convicted, despite the additional powers.

“Often, the case outcome left women feeling like it had been a waste of time, that the sentences were too lenient, their experiences of abuse were minimised, and that they were not valued within the criminal justice system.

“The initial evidence suggests that despite the new legislation perpetrators were able to continue the abuse and often, the perpetrators were able to manipulate criminal justice procedures to extend their abuse.”

“Where additional supports were put in place such as special measures in court, interdicts and Non-Harassment Orders, women did experience periods of respite and hope.

“However, often, this was short-lived as the perpetrator found ways of continuing their abuse with no repercussions, through exploiting loopholes, manipulating procedure or in open defiance of any restrictions placed on them.”

The study, published on Thursday by The Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, was produced by Dr Lombard, Dr Katy Proctor and Dr Nel Whiting, of GCU.

Dr Lombard added: “It is too early to fully evaluate the effectiveness of the legislation. However, to date, the findings from this small sample of survivors do not show any substantive evidence of DASA having had a positive impact on practice and women’s experiences of the criminal justice system.

“The women we spoke to called for better training and greater communication across the board.

“Positive experiences appeared to be the exception. The women expressed feelings of a lack of control throughout, regardless of the legislation applied to their case.”

Detective chief superintendent Sam Faulds, Police Scotland said: “The Domestic Abuse Scotland Act was a significant step forward in how Scotland’s criminal justice system deals with the full spectrum of abusive behaviour. Every officer in our service has been trained to identify these behaviours and to apply DASA.

“As a result, and to date, we have investigated reports brought by more than 5000 victims, resulting in over 4000 reports to the COPFS, all under DASA. The researchers acknowledge that their findings are limited and cannot be generalised, given it is based on a very small number of responses from victims.

“Every report of domestic abuse is different because every victim is different. We know that we don’t always get our response right but as an organisation, we are committed to listening. Information about the experiences of victims, provided to us by a range of organisations, is crucial in helping us improve our response.

“Where our response has not been acceptable, we would encourage people to engage with us or to make a formal complaint so their concerns can be addressed.”