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Courts must speed up domestic abuse cases

The goals of Scotland's specialist domestic abuse courts, set up over the last decade, were clear.

They were to usher in a better understanding of the nature of domestic abuse. Better support for victims and specialist clerks and sheriffs was cited as a likely benefit.

But a key factor was also speed, to help improve a legal system seen as inefficient and sluggish at dealing with domestic abuse, leading to outcomes that were late and sometimes inappropriate.

It was felt such cases simply were not taken seriously enough and specialist courts could tackle this, while dealing with delays that often saw cases taking four months or more to come to trial. The Edinburgh domestic violence court was launched with the aim of cutting this to eight weeks.

So it is alarming, to say the least, that the figure in Edinburgh at the beginning of this year was 11 weeks, and that in Glasgow, where the court is larger and better established, it reached 22 weeks by January this year.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that in Glasgow at least, exacerbated by disruption to the court during the Commonwealth Games, the current delay is even longer.

This is hugely worrying. There are good reasons why prompt and efficient justice is particularly important in domestic violence cases.

There may be concerns about the safety of the alleged victim, who may be left looking over her (or his) shoulder while awaiting a court resolution, although if such fears are severe, the accused would usually be held on remand. More importantly, if children are involved it is unlikely to be in their interest for the adults in their lives to have a stressful court case hanging over them for months. In some cases, where a child stays might be among the issues waiting to be determined, making a swift resolution especially desirable.

Where charges are the result of a temporary crisis in a relationship, court delays may get in the way of other solutions, such as anger management or help with addictions. Already difficult cases become harder to prosecute.

What is the cause of the delays? Events such as the Commonwealth Games cannot be blamed, as the figures predate them. This is a structural problem that lies with the court service and the judiciary. There is a shortage of specialist sheriffs and of court space to hear the cases.

The problem arises partly because of the considerable and laudable efforts made by the police and the Crown Office to take domestic abuse seriously.

The stated goal is that all cases of domestic abuse involving violence or threats of violence will be prosecuted, so long as there is sufficient evidence, and a greater willingness to bring forward cases has encouraged more victims to seek justice.

There are mixed messages here. The police and prosecutors have made domestic violence a priority. Now the courts must devote the time and resources needed to solve this problem.

Whether the accused is innocent or guilty, it is important cases are dealt with quickly. This is in the interests of victims, perpetrators and children alike.

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