SDAC blog post:
Our Specialist Domestic Abuse Court Independent Domestic Violence Advocate (SDAC IDVA for short!) works with victims and survivors of domestic abuse whose cases are going through the criminal justice system.
Court cases can take time, and the criminal justice process can be a complex and often incredibly frightening experience for victims of domestic abuse in particular. We know that nationally the conviction rate for domestic abuse cases is around 13%. Many victims and survivors feel unable to continue with the process: as a result of fear, risk, pressure, or a lack of support. Often these fears can be exacerbated by long wait times between charge and trial. As such the attrition rate in domestic abuse cases – the rate at which witnesses drop out of the criminal justice system – is very high.
Portsmouth has what is known as a Specialist Domestic Abuse Court or SDAC. These courts – sometimes called Specialist Domestic Violence Courts (or SDVCs) – exist in various areas across the country to respond to the specific needs of victims of abuse and support them in being able to give their evidence. Rather than being separate buildings, the term SDAC refers to a set of processes and facilities that a court has in place to ensure domestic abuse cases are dealt with quickly and efficiently, and that victims have access to information and support at every stage of the process.
A key component of any SDAC court is the availability of independent, specialist support for the victim, and this is where our Specialist Court Advocate comes in, offering specialist, one-to-one support to anyone whose case is going through court. All the usual elements of an IDVA service are provided, including risk assessment, safety planning, advocacy/liaison with other agencies and emotional support, but with the added component of direct support for the duration of the court case. This will vary depending on the needs of the client but might involve:
- Ensuring the client is kept up to date with the status of the case
- Ensuring that their safety during the hearing (both on entrance/exit and in the courtroom) is prioritised
- Liaising with the police/CPS to make sure that restraining orders are both applied for where required, and robust and detailed enough to effectively protect the victim going forward
- Remaining in court until the conclusion of the case (to ensure the client is updated on the outcome as quickly as possible)
- Attending sentencing on the client’s behalf
- Working with SDAC court partners to ensure the process is kept under continuous review, and to feedback about both good practice or areas for improvement.
The aim of the SDAC court, and the specialist advocate, is to ensure that victims and witnesses are kept central to the process at all times. By offering independent support throughout, the hope is that victims feel supported, safeguarded, and therefore more able to continue their involvement with the court case. The service’s key aim is to contribute to the reduction of the high attrition rate for domestic abuse cases in the city.
In our most recent analysis of the service, none of the clients who engaged with the SDAC IDVA have withdrawn from the CJS process. Whilst some cases have been discontinued for other reasons, the attrition rates for clients working with the SDAC IDVA remain low. In asking clients for their feedback on the service, 100% of the clients who have completed evaluation forms said that they felt supported at court as a result of working with the SDAC IDVA. 100% reported that they felt their emotional wellbeing had improved as a result of working with the SDAC IDVA, and 80% reported that they felt safer as a direct result of engaging with the service.
Interestingly, we saw early guilty pleas in 71% of the cases involved with the SDAC IDVA in the last reporting quarter. In an early guilty plea, the perpetrator pleads guilty before the trial rather than at the trial itself, which is of particular benefit because it negates the need for victims to attend court and give their evidence. Sometimes defendants will avoid making an early guilty plea in an attempt to ‘wait it out’ hoping that the victim will not attend court. An increase in early guilty pleas may point to a growing recognition, amongst defendants and their representatives, that victims are feeling increasingly confident in continuing with the criminal justice process. We continue to work with our partner agencies, including the police, CPS, witness service, and court staff, to track the impact of the Specialist court, and of the Independent advocate, going forward.
The following is an example, from our Specialist Court Advocate, of the work they undertook at court with a client recently:
Case study from SDAC IDVA:
I meet my client away from the court building, as she has never been to court before, she is understandably very nervous. We are there for a trial as my client’s perpetrator pleaded ‘not guilty’ to an assault against her. We head towards the courts together, where the court staff sign us in as we enter and we are collected by a member of the witness service. We are escorted to a secure area and I reassure my client that we are in a safe space, away from the perpetrator and the public areas of the court. The witness service volunteer explains the court procedure to my client and I reassure my client that a screen is in place for when they give their evidence as they do not want to be seen by him. My client and I have a coffee whilst waiting. The prosecutor then comes and has a chat with my client about what to expect and hands them their statement to read.
I leave my client to read her statement and offer to clarify anything if they find it difficult to read. I encourage my client to read their statement again, or as many times as they like, to make sure they aware of what is written. I then take instructions from my client as to whether or not they would like me to leave with them, once they have given their evidence, or if they would like me to remain in the court to observe the rest of the trial. My client opts for me to stay in the court room to observe the rest of the trial. I reassure my client that a witness service volunteer will escort them into the courtroom, will sit with them behind the screen when they are giving their evidence and will escort them safely out of the building once they have given their evidence.
My client is called to the courtroom to give her evidence. The courtroom is emptied whilst my client is taken in and placed behind the screen. I go into the courtroom and sit in the public gallery at the back. The perpetrator is then brought in and my client gives her evidence. She is then free to go. The courtroom is emptied again whilst my client is taken out of the courtroom, by which time I say goodbye and agree to call them after the trial has ended. The Perpetrator then gives his evidence. The evidence for the prosecution’s case is strong enough to prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that the perpetrator assaulted my client and the magistrates decide that perpetrator is ‘guilty’. The sentencing hearing is adjourned for 3 weeks, pending a pre-sentence report from Probation and bail conditions remain in place until then. Perpetrator is free to leave and, for the purpose of safety and confidentiality, I leave making sure that it is either before or after the perpetrator has left.
Once out of the court I call my client immediately and relay the outcome. I provide emotional support as my client reflects on their thoughts and feelings. This has been a very emotional time for her. I remind her that she has been incredibly brave in speaking out and we talk through the importance of her taking things easy for the rest of the day. I remind her to call me if she wants to talk further or has any questions. In closing I reassure my client that a restraining order has been applied for, but that bail conditions will remain in place until the sentencing hearing. We agree that I will attend the sentencing hearing without her (she is not required to attend), and that I will update her of the outcome as soon as I have it.
*This project is funded by the Police and Crime Commissioner for Hampshire and the IOW*