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15 October 2014
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The timing of Anne Marie Hicks’ appointment as national procurator fiscal for domestic abuse, a little over a year ago, was somewhat unfortunate. Former MSP Bill Walker had just been jailed for a string of domestic abuse offences six days earlier. Women’s groups and politicians had angrily rounded on the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) for the decision to prosecute in summary court, restricting the maximum possible sentence to 12 months. Consequently, the perception grew that Hicks – by no means a stranger to this area of prosecution – had been drafted in ultra quickly to guarantee that the Crown’s response to such cases across Scotland was up to scratch.

“I don’t think I would give Mr Walker credit for much to do with domestic abuse, I think the courts have spoken for themselves in relation to that,” she tells Holyrood. “I have been involved in this area for a number of years and I have seen all the changes happening, particularly over the last five years, with the introduction of new measures and specialist training that to be honest my appointment was very much part of where we were heading with it. 

“We have a National Sexual Crimes Unit so it is not something that we have just done in isolation. We now have a dedicated unit that deals with deaths investigations [the Scottish Fatalities Investigation Unit]. Specialism is the way that we have been moving for a number of years and so, obviously the press make of that what they will [in terms of the timing] but it’s very much the way we have been moving.”

The newspapers were not the only vocal ones, though. Forty-eight hours before the announcement of Hicks’ appointment, the Lib Dems called for a review of prosecution guidelines after figures showed fewer than one in 20 domestic abuse charges in 2012-13 had been taken on indictment and therefore heard before a jury with the greater sentencing powers that it brings. “On the whole issue of which forum a case should be prosecuted in, we have made some amendments to our guidance to make sure that we have adequate information there for fiscals so that they can consider all the different options,” she says. “[With] these cases, it’s not like putting in a formula to a computer. At the extremes it’s crystal clear which is a definite case for the High Court or [which is] at the lower end. But there are a whole load of factors people have to take into account [for those] in the middle and so we have reviewed and improved our guidance on that. But I think the moves that the Crown have been taking over a number of years in relation to domestic abuse speak for themselves.”

Hicks has been front and centre in much of that. A decade ago, she was involved in drafting the first joint protocol between police and prosecutors on challenging domestic abuse while simultaneously helping to set up a specialist domestic abuse court in Glasgow, the first of its kind in Scotland. Five years later, she was charged with setting up the Domestic Abuse Unit in Glasgow as the court spread its wings from the south side to cover the entire city.

“When I look back to where it was when I joined 16 years ago, I think the fiscal service, as did the police, as did society in general, probably regarded it just as a domestic; it was some kind of lesser type of crime somehow because it happens in somebody’s house, and it wasn’t something that people would get involved in,” she says. “And there could be… a lack of understanding, maybe we would get a letter in from a victim saying that they didn’t want the case to proceed and there could be a lack of understanding then about what was behind that and maybe a feeling of, ‘if they’re not bothered about it, should we be bothered?’ Thankfully, I think we have moved on massively from those days.”

Tailored training on dealing with stalking, legislation on which was introduced by parliament in 2010, has been provided this year after a need for additional input was identified. Hicks is also “in the middle of” devising a training package for domestic abuse that encompasses not just prosecutors but those working in the Crown’s Victim Information and Advice service. Increasing access to specialist domestic abuse resources at a local level as well as how the Crown incorporates an increasingly specialist approach to its solemn business is being worked on. It’s part of an ongoing review led by Hicks that has also identified a need to improve the quality of information that comes the Crown’s way.    

“There is a lot of information that victims groups have on risk that we can get but also there is a lot of information that the police have,” she says. “It is about making sure that fiscals receive the right information from the police so we can make sure we’ve got a full picture… The police are very much in tune with us on this because we all realise it’s not just about evidence, it’s not just about that snapshot. We need to know more than the snapshot, we need to know what the history is, we need to know what the risks are going forward because from the police point of view and from the victims group point of view, if they want to safety plan for someone, you need to know the full picture. It’s no use just looking at what happened at three o’clock in the morning on the Saturday – you need to know the bigger picture. There is a lot of work that we’re doing both with the police and with victims groups to look at that, to look at how we all information share better to make sure that we can get the right results.”

The extent to which prosecutors can then use that information, however, remains somewhat limited. “One of the things that victims tell us is the fact that the law tends to focus on incidents; we tend to focus on the violent assault that night or the threats that were issued but we don’t really capture all the other degrading, controlling behaviour that maybe goes through the life of the relationship,” adds Hicks. “Now some aspects of that can maybe be covered but there is a whole load that just doesn’t. And victims, although they have had what looks like a successful prosecution, then sometimes don’t really feel that what happens to them in their life gets properly reflected by the courts.”

It was against this backdrop that the Solicitor General urged the creation of a specific offence of domestic abuse back in May, a call that the Scottish Government is now considering as part of its Equally Safe strategy on violence against women and girls. “I’ve seen so many changes, even in the last five years, in terms of what the law has done and I can see that while [the] law is only one part of the story, it does and it can have an impact on changing societal behaviour and so it does have a part to play,” Hicks tells Holyrood. “We want to be able to properly prosecute what we’re dealing with and not just one wee tiny part [which means] that somebody is then sentenced for something that absolutely doesn’t reflect the reality of the horror of what is going on.”    

Ministers have also promised to look at the Lord Advocate’s plea for bespoke legislation to tackle a rise in ‘revenge porn’ involving intimate images being shared by former or current partners. “We see more and more cases of that with the rise of things like social media and we know how devastating that can be for people,” says Hicks. 

“It can be used as a form of stalking, it can be used as a form of control. We have images that are taken consensually during the relationship but we also know from what victims tell us and from the victims groups that sometimes images are not taken consensually. People are controlled and forced to have these images [taken] and it’s just another way of controlling people’s lives. We want to look at how does the law deal with these at the moment and if there are gaps then we need to be moving to plug them to make sure that people are protected.”

Perhaps a more pressing problem is the lengthy delays domestic abuse victims face in seeing their case come to court amid a remarkable 35 per cent increase in charges in the last year. Ten years ago, Glasgow’s flagship court launched with the intention of bringing cases to trial within eight weeks of an accused’s first appearance. It’s now a matter of months rather than weeks. 

Extra court resource has been ploughed in since spring to try and bring delays down, with further courts running for the rest of this month. Hicks concedes, though, that returning to eight weeks in Scotland’s largest city is an unlikely ambition in the short term, instead, saying that it is “certainly on a journey”. 

“There is no doubt in certain places it might have to be some additional court resource but, in other places, we’re wanting to look at the whole system – where are the problems in the system and are there other things that we can do to address that. It’s never just about the courts or the prosecution or what the police are doing, it’s the whole system. That’s the approach very much being taken in terms of the violence against women strategy to look at it and see are there other ways of actually trying to address some of these issues, because nothing is ever just about additional resource.”

Anne Marie Hicks is speaking at a Holyrood conference on domestic violence on October 29. You can register to attend here.

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