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Glasgow Domestic Abuse Court Feasibility Study Group: Report to the Scottish Government

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3. Features of the G Division pilot court

3.1 An evaluation of the pilot domestic abuse court was carried out by Reid Howie Associates, and was published in March 2007. This chapter draws on that evaluation in part, but does not attempt to summarise it. Instead, the purpose of this chapter is to note briefly some features of the pilot court which are important background for the analysis of alternative future models, in chapter 4. This chapter is therefore concerned with the methods, the costs and the observed benefits of the pilot court.

Methods of the pilot court

3.2 The pilot court is a specialist court. A number of special arrangements were put in place at its inception, which enabled it to function in different ways, compared to the bulk of summary business in Glasgow Sheriff Court. The main features which make the court specialist have been as follows:

3.2.1 The domestic abuse court has its own dedicated courtroom (court 13), which takes all summary domestic abuse cases from G Division. No other business of the Sheriff Court is taken in this courtroom. At the start of the pilot this space could be made available at minimal cost, because one large courtroom in Glasgow Sheriff Court was physically divided into two courtrooms.

3.2.2 The majority of the business in the domestic abuse court is handled by two specialist sheriffs, Sheriff Raeburn and Sheriff Totten, who each devote a considerable portion of their time to it. Three other specialist sheriffs cover the remainder of the business. This ensures a high degree of consistency of approach.

3.2.3 A dedicated COPFS team (consisting of 1.6 procurator fiscal deputes, 1 VIA assistant and 1.4 admin assistants) provides further continuity. All G Division domestic abuse summary prosecutions are handled by the dedicated procurators fiscal 5. These specialists are supported by enhanced training on domestic abuse.

3.2.4 Summary domestic abuse prosecutions from G Division are taken in the specialist court at all stages. Thus the accused's first appearance (invariably from custody), intermediate diets, trials and sentencing are all held in court 13. The relatively light pressure of business enables court processes to proceed more reliably and therefore reduces churn.

3.2.5 A specialist victim support service, ASSIST, was established to support victims of domestic abuse and their dependent children. ASSIST, which is commissioned by Glasgow City Council and housed within Glasgow Community & Safety Services, provides continuity of support to victims. Among ASSIST's unique contributions are: its ability to contact victims within 24 hours of notification by the police, while the accused is normally in custody, which allows early initial risk assessment and risk management; the continuity of contact with victims; the regular flow of information to the procurator fiscal, informing them of the victim's views; and the provision of advanced safety planning, in particular through Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conferencing ( MARACs). In addition, ASSIST is recognised as playing a pivotal role of coordinating the work of the various agencies, including the police, criminal justice agencies, social work, and voluntary sector agencies. The integration of the support for victims with the court processes has been crucial.

3.2.6 The caseload handled by the pilot court has been lower than that for a comparable summary courtroom in Glasgow. Direct numerical comparisons are not possible, because the domestic abuse court contains a mix of custodies, IDs, trials and sentencing, while these various stages are split between courtrooms for other summary cases. However, sheriffs, procurators fiscal and defence agents involved in the domestic abuse court are clear that the pressure of business has been lower than the norm for Glasgow, and that this has made a significant contribution to its greater effectiveness, not least because it has allowed time for improved communication between procurators fiscal and defence agents.

3.3 Equally important to the success of the domestic abuse court are the policies adopted by the police and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. There is a presumption that prosecution will be in the public interest in all domestic abuse cases involving violence where a sufficiency of evidence exists that a crime has been committed. In non-violent cases where there is a sufficiency of evidence, careful consideration is given as to whether it is in the public interest to prosecute or, in exceptional cases, to adopt an alternative disposal to prosecution. However these policies, which are set out in the ACPOS/ COPFS joint protocol on handling domestic abuse cases 6, are common across Scotland and therefore cannot be seen as specialist features of the pilot court.

3.4 The Group wishes to make a specific comment about one feature of the court process which has not worked well, which concerns the level of Reliance staffing during custody hearings. Until now, only one Reliance officer has served the domestic abuse custody court, and this has led to significant delays between successive cases, to allow time for the Reliance officer to transfer one accused to custody and escort another from custody, completing appropriate paperwork in each case. This seems a waste of court resources and a false economy. We understand that this inefficiency is now to be removed from the pilot domestic abuse court and the Group recommends that this better practice should continue in future, irrespective of the future model adopted.

3.5 It is worth noting that not all of the features listed in paragraph 3.2 are shared by all the Specialist Domestic Violence Courts ( SDVCs) which have been developed in England and Wales. SDVCs in England and Wales are often on a smaller scale than the Glasgow pilot. While prosecutors and magistrates in receipt of domestic violence training, and Independent Domestic Violence Advisers ( IDVAs 7) are common to all of them, they do they necessarily bring all stages of a case into the same courtroom. The majority adopt some form of "clustering" of cases so that domestic violence cases are brought together to be heard on the same day(s) of the week at each of the key procedural stages, which permits efficient handling both by the IDVAs and by the agencies involved in the criminal justice process.

Costs of the pilot court

3.6 The full costs of the pilot have not been assessed. As noted above, the capital cost of providing an additional courtroom was marginal, because space was created within the existing Sheriff Court building. The costs of servicing the courtroom as a building have not been estimated, but in any case would now be seen as opportunity costs rather than cash costs. Likewise, the costs of accommodation and services for ASSIST have been provided by Glasgow Community & Safety Services, and no charge is currently being made for these. Nor has the group considered any additional costs due to the legal aid arrangements, given that this aspect forms no part of our analysis, for the reasons set out in footnote 5 above.

3.7 There are also cost implications for the police and for social work departments, which includes the cost of preparing for, attending, and taking action following MARACs 8. However, these cannot be quantified.

3.8 The quantifiable direct recurrent costs of the domestic abuse court pilot are therefore limited to the following:

Shrieval and staff costs for an additional court:
(met by the Scottish Government and Scottish Courts Service)

£208k

Additional Prosecution staff costs: 1.6 procurators fiscal and 1.4 support staff
(met partly by COPFS and partly by SG Criminal Justice Directorate)

£138k

ASSIST
(met by SG Equality Unit with a contribution from Glasgow City Council)

£270k

Total recurrent costs

£616k

3.9 While these may be seen as direct additional costs, there will be some partial compensatory time-releasing savings elsewhere in the system, in the form of reduced pressure on the mainstream courts and victim support agencies. These savings, however, are unquantifiable and on any estimation would represent only a small fraction of the total. The overall recurrent costs of the pilot may therefore reasonably be stated as £600k per annum.

Observed benefits of the pilot court

3.10 The beneficial outcomes achieved by the pilot court have been documented in the evaluation by Reid Howie. In particular:

3.10.1 The court was successful in hearing most cases within the target times of four weeks from first calling to ID and six weeks to trial diet;

3.10.2 An analysis comparing domestic abuse cases heard in the specialist court with those heard in other summary courts in Glasgow showed a higher rate of guilty pleas overall (81% compared with 73%), as well as more pleas at or before an ID. The court also had a higher rate of conviction (86% compared with 77%) and a lower rate of attrition (10% compared with 18%). Experience of the pilot court would indicate that these outcomes have been achieved through the zero tolerance culture of the court including perpetrators being aware that domestic abuse is taken so seriously there is a special court, the engagement of complainers, and the short timescale between first appearance and trial. In addition there is a lack of "churn" in the specialist court:- the practice of both the procurator fiscal and the bench to avoid adjournments has been supported by a commitment by the procurator fiscal to provide the defence with a summary of evidence at first appearance, and (in cases of not guilty pleas) early disclosure of full statements by the intermediate diet. Another factor is that the smaller court puts the accused in the spotlight.

3.10.3 There was a high level of satisfaction among victims whose cases were heard in the pilot court. (This summary finding probably reflects a high level of satisfaction with all aspects of the ASSIST processes, including speed of initial contact, continuity of support through the procedural stages, and actions taken following risk assessments and safety planning.)

3.10.4 There were differences between the pilot and mainstream courts in the pattern of disposals, with probation being used more often and fines much less often. We consider that this probably reflects the greater awareness of and sensitivity to domestic abuse issues on the part of the specialist sheriffs.

3.11 One notable omission from this list is the lack of any empirical evidence of long-term impact on offenders. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the imposition of swifter justice will help to change a culture which too often sees domestic abuse as acceptable, or at least unremarkable, and will lead to steady reductions in recidivism and in due course in the incidence of this crime. However, as Reid Howie noted, it is impossible to draw such conclusions without a long-term study of offenders, extending over some 5-10 years.
In the absence of such a study, it is regrettably not possible to measure the impact of the specialist court on the area where it is arguably of most long-term significance. In this regard, the Feasibility Study Group is also aware that investment in perpetrator programmes lagged behind investment in court processes and victim support throughout the period of the pilot, an imbalance which may have been unavoidable because there was no nationally accredited programme during the period of the pilot. The Group recommends that the Scottish Government should seek to increase funding for accredited perpetrator programmes including partner work, and to secure improved evidence about their effectiveness.

3.12 Members of the group involved in the criminal justice process are also aware from their own experience of improvements within the processes which led to these outcomes.
In particular, defence agents have commented on the improved legal aid arrangements and on the greater ease with which they can contact a procurator fiscal to discuss a case. The deployment of dedicated staff across all agencies was noted as a considerable benefit of the SDVCs in a recent review 9 of the first 23 SDVCs in England and Wales.

3.13 Similarly, members of the group involved with victim support are conscious of markedly improved possibilities as a result of the investment in ASSIST. Perhaps most significantly, ASSIST is at the hub of improved multi-agency collaboration, involving the police, procurators fiscal, social work services and other public agencies, characterised by much more open sharing of information than is the norm. This has permitted improved risk assessment and safety planning, including through the Multi Agency Risk Assessment Conferencing ( MARACs) which ASSIST coordinate on behalf of the most vulnerable victims.

3.14 The group considers that the combination of effective prosecutions of offenders and proactive risk assessment work with high risk victims will have had an impact in terms of preventing escalation of domestic abuse and diminishing its incidence, although these effects cannot be firmly evidenced or quantified. The importance of effective prevention would be hard to overstate. By way of context, a study by Sylvia Walby 10, published in 2004, estimated that across England and Wales, the cost to public services (police, health, social services etc) of domestic abuse amounted to £3.1bn per annum. The Group also considers that there would be advantage in a comparable study being commissioned in Scotland, in order to establish the potential value of initiatives to prevent domestic abuse.