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Tackling blight of domestic abuse

Sir Stephen House, the chief constable of Police Scotland, has consistently made it clear that domestic abuse is one of the priorities of the single force.

Where evidence of the offence is found, he has said, Police Scotland will act decisively. It appears the strategy is already delivering results, with a big increase in the number of offences being recorded.

This approach is reassuring - and a welcome change from the years when violence was dismissed with the words "just a domestic" - but Sir Stephen has suggested there should be a change in how domestic abuse is handled. Some perpetrators, he says, should not be sent to court but instead put on courses to change their behaviour. "I don't believe every domestic abuse incident needs to go to court," he says.

On the face of it, this would appear to suggest a softening of the force's approach and there will be some who worry that offenders will end up getting away with the soft option of counselling. However, Sir Stephen is right to suggest that a longer-term strategy has to involve not only catching offenders and punishing them but also changing attitudes.

Sadly, we know there is still considerable progress to be made in this area. One recent Scottish Government survey found 7% of men thought that a man could sometimes have a good reason for hitting his partner. Until that kind of attitude is tackled, domestic abuse will continue to be a problem and sending perpetrators to prison, without tackling the attitudes that got them there in the first place, will change little in the long term.

Courses to change behaviour could help here but the question is: when should a person suspected of domestic abuse be offered counselling instead of being taken to court? There will always be some perpetrators who have to go to court, and in some cases, prison, and the most serious offenders have to be dealt with firmly.

There must be no equivocation on the principle that all domestic abuse is wrong. However, the victim support service Assist and the community justice organisation Sacro believe an alternative to court could work in some cases. It is worth initiating a pilot project to see how it might work.

Safeguards would have to be in place of course to ensure any repeat of the offending behaviour would not be tolerated, and sufficient resources would need to be allocated to following up those who took part to ensure they did not simply complete the course then return to their old ways.

It is also important that counselling is not seen as a way of relieving the pressure on the domestic abuse court. The court has been a considerable success but it is now overloaded, so much so that it is now taking up to 40 weeks for some cases to be dealt with. This can only be solved by providing more resources to ensure the court can cope. Siphoning suspects off into counselling is not a solution on its own.

This two-pronged strategy, changing attitudes and properly resourcing the court system, could tackle domestic abuse in the long term, although there will always be a delicate balance to be struck between being tough on the offence and thinking longer-term about how to prevent perpetrators offending again.

We cannot simply continue to act as we have for decades and hope domestic violence will go away. A tough but realistic strategy to change attitudes for good, and punish offenders promptly and firmly, is the best way forward.

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