What is Domestic Abuse?
Domestic abuse is an incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and violent behaviour, including sexual violence, inflicted by a current or former partner or close family member.
Anyone can be a victim of domestic abuse. Domestic abuse can include:
- Coercive control
- Psychological/emotional abuse
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Economic and financial abuse
- Online and technological abuse
Everyone should feel safe and be safe in their personal relationships.
Domestic abuse denies victims a right to feel safe in their personal relationships. It can have a significant and enduring impact on victims and children who often face a continuing threat to their safety.
The PPS has been committed to prosecuting cases of domestic abuse robustly for many years. We have relied on criminal offences such as common assault and harassment to hold perpetrators of domestic abuse to account.
The laws around domestic abuse have now changed. The Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act (Northern Ireland) 2021, which came into effect in February 2022, creates a new, specific offence of domestic abuse offence in Northern Ireland. It offers greater protections to all victims who have suffering abuse, including those experiencing controlling or coercive behaviour in a domestic context.
You can read the new law by clicking the link.
This domestic abuse offence criminalises a ‘course of abusive behaviour’. A course of abusive behaviour is behaviour that occurs on two or more occasions.
Abusive behaviour can include (but is not limited to) coercive control, psychological abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, economic abuse, online and technological abuse.
Where a single incident of abusive behaviour has been reported, or where there is insufficient evidence of a course of abusive behaviour, the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act (Northern Ireland) 2021 gives prosecutors a discretion to apply what is called a domestic abuse aggravator to an existing criminal offence, for example common assault, which increases the seriousness of the offence and the sentencing power of the Court.
The Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act (Northern Ireland) 2021 recognises the long lasting impact of domestic abuse either directly where they are a victim, or indirectly where they have been used to abuse someone else. Prosecutors also have a discretion to apply child aggravators to a domestic abuse offence charge. These aggravators may be applied where the victim of the domestic abuse is under 18 or where a child has been involved in the abusive behaviour.
Children may often not be aware that they are victims or that they are being used as part of abuse on someone else.
How we handle Domestic Abuse cases
In the Public Prosecution Service we take cases involving domestic abuse extremely seriously. We recognise the serious impact domestic abuse has on victims, children and families, and wider society.
This video explains how we handle cases of Domestic Violence and Abuse.
To prepare for the new law, we in the PPS have introduced a team of specialist domestic abuse prosecutors.
We have also worked with Women’s Aid Federation NI and other voluntary sector partners to deliver a major programme of training to all prosecutors and other staff who directly support victims.
Our specialist domestic abuse prosecutors are highly trained and experienced lawyers who understand how complex these crimes can be and the trauma experienced by victims.
They consider every case of domestic abuse carefully, sensitively and objectively.
We understand that experiencing the criminal justice system can be particularly difficult for victims of these offences.
We also work with voluntary and community sector organisations that offer support to victims throughout the process, from reporting the crime to giving evidence in court.
We can ask the Court to put in place special measures for victims or witnesses to further support them and help them to give their best evidence.
We are committed to dealing effectively with cases of domestic violence and abuse and apply our policy on Prosecuting cases of Domestic Violence to all cases of current or former partner or family abuse, regardless of the gender or age of the defendant or victim. You can read the policy by clicking the link.
Who can be a victim?
Anyone can be the victim of domestic abuse irrespective of age, ethnicity, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or any form of disability
Domestic abuse can occur not only in intimate relationships, but also in family relationships such as abuse of parents or grandparents, as well as abuse of close family members more generally.
Put simply, domestic abuse occurs when the perpetrator and the victim are personally connected. That is, if they:
- are, or have been, married;
- are, or have been, in a civil partnership;
- live together (or have lived together) as if they were married or in a civil partnership;
- are or have been in an intimate relationship-this is intended to cover relationships between two individuals (including young/teenage and same-sex relationships), although the relationship need not be sexual, nor long term; or
- are family members.
A family member includes a person’s parent, grandparent, child or step-child, grandchild or sibling (including half siblings). It also includes a person’s ‘in-laws’ (the parent, grandparent, child, grandchild or sibling of the person that they are in a relationship with, i.e. their spouse, civil partner, or someone they live with as if they are married or in a civil partnership). Half-blood and step-relationships are also covered.
What if a victim does not want to proceed?
If a victim decides to withdraw their evidence or does not want a case to go to court, that does not automatically end the prosecution. The prosecutor will have to carefully consider a number of matters, including:
- The seriousness of the case
- The reasons why a person does not want the case to proceed
- Whether there is any other evidence to prove the offending
- Whether the victim has been intimidated
- Whether there are children involved
- Whether there is a risk of reoffending
Can the case continue without the victim?
If we still have sufficient evidence to proceed, we may decide to continue without relying on a victim’s evidence. Generally, the more serious the offence, for example, if serious violence or children are involved, the more likely we are to continue with a prosecution, even if a victim does not wish us to do so.
If we need the victim’s evidence to prove the case, but they do not want to be involved, the prosecutor must consider a number of options, including asking the court to have the victim’s witness statement used in their absence. Sometimes we will send the victim a summons which means they have to attend court. This will usually only happen when the case is serious and the victim or children are at risk of further harm.
We will always seek the views of police before we decide to summons a victim to attend court. This will include an assessment of any risks that the victim will be exposed to.
Help to give evidence
We understand that some people feel anxious when they have to attend court to give evidence. If you are a victim of domestic violence or abuse or a witness to such behaviour, we may ask the court to grant special measures to help a victim or witness give their best evidence. You can read more about Special Measures by clicking the link.
If a suspect is arrested and charged with an offence, the police will decide whether or not to release the person on bail or to keep him or her in custody for the court to decide whether he should be released on bail. PPS may ask that the defendant remains in custody to protect a victim, avoid interference with witnesses or stop further offences from being committed. If a suspect is released on bail we may ask for bail conditions to be imposed by the court, for example condition that the suspect cannot contact you. PPS will work closely with the police and where possible will always try to ask for a victim’s views about bail.
Victim Personal Statement
We know that domestic violence and abuse can have a devastating impact on victims and their families. The purpose of this statement is to ensure that the court understands the victim’s views before it decides on the defendant’s sentence. A victim of crime can explain the effect that the crime has had on them. This can include the physical, emotional or financial impact of the crime. You can read more about Victim Personal Statements by visiting the NI Direct website.
- Policy for Prosecuting Cases of Domestic Violence
- Code for Prosecutors
- Victim and Witness Policy
- Victim Charter
24-hour helpline for Victims of Domestic and Sexual Abuse
Telephone: 0808 802 1414
Further support services for victims can be found on the NI Direct website.