On Thursday (15th September 2016) the Scottish Parliament debated the Scottish Government’s proposal for a Domestic Abuse law. You can read John’s speech from the debate below.
“The Scottish Green Party welcomes the proposed bill. Tackling domestic abuse is, rightly, a priority for the criminal justice system, for society and for those who are affected by such abuse—the victims, who are overwhelmingly female, and their children. If we get the legislation right, we will go some way towards addressing gender-based violence and a little way towards addressing gender-based inequality.
It is not my gender that is suffering that inequality. For too long in our male-dominated society, the issue was not discussed, and I welcome the fact that we are now having discussions out in the open, particularly about the complex area of psychological abuse and coercive control.
Societal action is required, too. Action can bring many challenges and confrontations with certain groups in society, and it can also bring geographic challenges. I would say nothing that would identify an individual case, but I dealt with a victim of appalling psychological abuse and coercive control whose male partner was regarded as a highly respected member of their rural community and, very alarmingly, was someone to whom victims might turn. There are particular challenges for rural communities that we need to be conscious of.
It is important that we move the discussion forward on an informed basis, and it is important to say that the behaviour that we are discussing is not restricted to one socioeconomic group but is present across society.
I am grateful for the various briefings that we have received, such as the one from Scottish Women’s Aid. A number of members have talked about the pivotal role that that organisation has played in progressing the agenda and the informed background that it can bring to our discussion.
Mention has been made of the Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act 2016, which my colleague Margaret Mitchell and I, among others, were responsible for scrutinising in the previous parliamentary session. During that scrutiny, we took evidence in private from a woman who lived in a state of fear and alarm—essentially, a state of psychological siege—in her own home. It was an appalling situation. That woman was extremely grateful to the police for their diligent investigations, their support and their thorough work. Her partner continually breached bail. He was banned from her home but often, when she returned home from being out, he would be in the vicinity. The system failed her and her children.
If we are going to get this right, we need good law. The Law Society has talked about the need for certainty in law—Gordon Lindhurst made an extremely helpful contribution in that regard—and Margaret Mitchell talked about the complexity that exists. We are seeking to deal with a much more complex set of circumstances.
The perpetrators of such behaviour are highly manipulative, which is why there is no role for mediation, although there can be a role for advocacy for the victims. Scottish Women’s Aid talks about understanding the dynamics and the impact, and about the important role of training for decision makers throughout the system.
In respect of getting it right for every child, many members have talked about the children who are involved in domestic abuse cases, and the cabinet secretary talked about recognising the impact on children. It is vital that children’s needs are met. I know that there have been preliminary discussions about the Nordic model of noting statements from child victims in an agreed manner, which means that there might be no need for them to be at court, and certainly no need for them to be cross-examined. There is potential in that model, and I hope that it can be followed up. Indeed, with new personnel in place, it might be possible that the only things challenged in court will be the facts under dispute.
Members have talked about domestic abuse courts. The Green Party will support Claire Baker’s amendment, which mentions their role. Along with Ross-shire Women’s Aid, I have been involved for a while in discussions with the sheriff principal about such courts. Kate Forbes suggested some sort of roving role for domestic abuse courts. The public may think that that is about new buildings, but it is about case management and the opportunity to bring professionals together. That is important, because it would build up judicial expertise. Furthermore, a sufficient cohort of cases would make that a very practical approach.
Members have talked about the vital issue of funding. I acknowledge the £20 million that the Scottish Government put in, but if we are really committed to dealing with the issue, we cannot have all the various groups lobbying us because they have no certainty about their future. It is important to consider that that might mean a different source of funding or a different way of looking at funding.
Legal support is an important issue. In the case that I alluded to, because of the geography and a number of other reasons, the appropriate legal support was hard to get. We need to look at that.
Although it is unpalatable to some, we must look at the statutory defence and the legal burden on the accused. The Law Society reminds us of the presumption of innocence and the obligation on the prosecution to prove the guilt of the accused, and proposes an amendment to the statutory defence. According to my information, a number of proposed amendments have come in. Ross-shire Women’s Aid, for instance, suggests that the statutory defence is open to manipulation by perpetrators and that there will be frailties around it in connection with women with disabilities where the abuser is a carer. Furthermore, it does not fully cover behaviour that is directed at children, pets or property. There is also a clear view that the penalties are not sufficient. Once again, there is talk of non-harassment orders. The link between the criminal and the civil is very important.
This is about gender violence and inequality. As a member of the Justice Committee, I look forward to thoroughly scrutinising the bill to ensure that we get good law in place.”