Self isolation presents a perfect storm for victims of domestic abuse - the courts must continue to function

Olivia Bennett writes a three part series on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the criminal justice system.

Part two discusses victims of domestic abuse and the vital need for the courts to continue to function for the safety of vulnerable people. 

In March, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, took the unprecedented step of offering £330 billion in bank loans to support UK employees and businesses. The support package follows the order to stay at home - in a bid to reduce the spread of COVID-19 - that has seen the economy grind to a near standstill. For many, normal life has stopped. Crime has not.

There has been a noticeable increase in the reporting of opportunistic crime, such as fraud, exploitative pricing of goods, retail burglaries and racially motivated hate crime. The latter, perhaps, fuelled by President Trump controversially labelling COVID-19 a ‘Chinese Virus’. Furthermore, of increasing concern is the rise in reported incidents of domestic abuse.

Concern for domestic abuse sufferers

Domestic abuse is any incident, or pattern of incidents, where a person is subjected to controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour. This includes physical, psychological, sexual, financial or emotional manipulation. It is a crime that affects 1.6 million women and 786,000 men in the UK according to the Office of National Statistics.

 The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has expressed her concern for victims whose “home is not the safe haven it should be” during these difficult times. Moreover, there is worry that pub closures, coupled with anxiety over health and job insecurity may increase alcohol consumption in households. A World Health Organisation report found that alcohol consumption can ‘reduce self-control and leave individuals less capable of negotiating a non-violent resolution to conflicts within relationships’, thereby increasing the occurrence and severity of domestic abuse.

For sufferers of domestic abuse self-isolation presents a perfect storm: detachment from a support network of friends, wider family members, colleagues and classmates, reducing the opportunity to escape and report abuse. Furthermore, the enforced closer proximity to perpetrators of abuse increases the likelihood of it occurring.

The theoretical increase in risk has already been reflected in statistics. In the Hubei province of China, the first city to enter into lockdown, reports of domestic abuse have increased threefold in comparison to last year. Last February there were 47 reports of domestic abuse, this February 162. A similar increase has been noted in areas of the UK. For instance, in Avon and Somerset, police have recorded a 20.9% increase in the last two weeks. Unfortunately, as domestic abuse is often underreported it is likely these figures are significantly lower than the true incidence.

Justice must continue to be served

It is clear to see the importance of justice, and the courts continuing to function. The courts are capable of safeguarding victims of domestic abuse by issuing restraining and/or protection orders where necessary. It is the courts that have the capability to issue a custodial sentence. Encouragingly, the Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland, has committed “to delivering justice to victims of crime, and as best as possible, keep our courts open”. However, in light of social distancing rules of two metres, and increasingly more people self isolating how can this be administered in practice?

Technology offers a solution in the form of video and telephone hearings. The House of Commons has passed the Coronavirus Bill which has significantly expanded the use of technology in legal proceedings. Now, if a judge decides it is ‘in the interest of justice’, a hearing can be held via video link ensuring all participants in the trial, including the judge, witnesses, defendant, complainant and legal representatives, can access the court remotely.

However, there are both logistical and legal concerns. Logistically, many courts are not fitted with the IT infrastructure to facilitate hearings via video link. Such failings emphasise the concerns raised in the Secret Barrister’s book that following a 25% cut to the Ministry of Justice budget in 2010/2011, many courts are archaic and unprepared to provide modern justice. Legally, there is concern that virtual hearings may infringe the defendant’s right to a fair trial. The confidentiality of proceedings may be breached and the privacy of a conversation between defendant and barrister cannot be guaranteed. Moreover, there is evidence that video links can disadvantage minority ethnic groups and those with mental health issues, and can adversely affect the engagement and perception of witnesses in cross examination. These caveats must be addressed so that the integrity and fairness of a trial is not compromised.

In the wake of any crisis, there is not an opportunity, but a need to find solutions. In the presence of uncertainty, justice must continue as an ever-present safeguard to ensure we maintain a civil society, and of specific focus to this article: the safety of domestic abuse victims. Yes, the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted shortcomings in our criminal justice system. However, it has also generated solutions, in the form of legislation that has significantly accelerated progress in the administration of justice. We now have the responsibility to invest in our justice system - both in money and ingenuity - to bring such solutions to fruition.

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