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New sentencing powers for domestic violence comes into force ‘and not before time’

woman abuse

New legislative powers in domestic violence cases which are due to come into force on February 21 have been welcomed by a judge who described them as: “Long overdue.”

During a recent sentencing hearing District Judge Bernie Kelly advised: “Sentencing in a case of domestic abuse on indictment will carry 14 years imprisonment and not before time.”

She has long been outspoken around domestic violence matters involving victims regardless of gender, but is also championing the protection and safety of women and girls.

The Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act (Northern Ireland) creates a course of conduct offence and sets rules around procedure and giving evidence in criminal cases involving domestic abuse. It also regulates the conduct of civil proceedings in particular circumstances, and makes provision for connected purposes.

Domestic abuse is committed if, for example, Party A and Party B are personally connected at the time and one engages of abusive behaviour of the other.

Relationships cover current or previous spouses civil partners, living together or family members.

Abuse is considered conduct likely to cause the victim physical or psychological harm, and/or intends the victim to suffer and/or the abuser is reckless as to whether harm is suffered

All psychological harm includes fear, alarm and distress and abusive behaviour is deemed violent and/or threatening toward the victim or their child.

Effects of abuse range from making the victim dependant or subordinate to the abuser; isolating them from friends, family members or other sources of social interaction or support; controlling, regulating or monitoring day-to-day activities; depriving or restricting freedom of action, and/or making then feel frightened, humiliated, degraded, punished or intimidated.

Violent behaviour includes both sexual and physical abuse.

In respect of the impact on victims, the Act deems an offence is committed whether or not the abuser’s behaviour actually causes the victim to suffer harm.

Behaviour can be of any kind, including saying or otherwise communicating or doing something, directed at the victim in respect of their ability to, for example, acquire, use or maintain money or other property or obtain goods or services.

All statutory agencies to whom the legislation touches upon must be provided with the appropriate, training including PSNI, the Public Prosecution Service and NI Courts and Tribunal Service.

Judge Kelly noted the legislation to be: “Very broad and looks to behaviours which puts someone in alarm, distress or fear, to include physical and psychological. It’s long overdue.”

She was speaking during in the case of a victim who received a message from her ex-partner stating he’d “had enough” and was threatening to self-harm.

The victim contacted police who found her ex-partner safe and well. He was charged with misusing communications network to cause alarm and distress, which was accepted.

Judge Kelly remarked: “Threatening suicide is a form of domestic abuse, particularly when you communicate that to your former partner. His rationale for that is ‘she made me do it.’ How often has that been heard in domestic violence cases?”

When told the couple have now divorced and the defendant was working with lawyers for contact with his children, she added: “In line with the new legislation I hope the courts attach the appropriate weight to such instances when people apply to see their children. There are issues which an abuser clearly doesn’t get when he views their mother in this light.”

Judge Kelly described the behaviour as an: “Absolutely atrocious form of domestic violence.”

In another instance she criticised a solicitor who contended a client made a comment: “Used all too frequently but that not always by those with misogynistic tendencies. It’s used every day in all sorts or connotations.”

Judge Kelly responded: “Unfortunately it is a word which is directly derogative of females. If he’s using words he doesn’t understand he shouldn’t use them. Nobody in my house would ever be allowed the use it.”

The defence accepted the phrase was: “totally reprehensible”.

Also pointing to a separate case in which a victim was specifically targeted because she was female, she said: “A woman says no so why is the apparent response by the male offender, ‘You’ll not be saying no to me’. That’s very concerning behaviour. Women are allowed to say no and when they say no, the response should be,’ thanks very much, goodbye’. There should be no threatening or harassment.”

Last week Judge Kelly described a case in which a man admitted impersonating a police officer as: “Sinister, to put it mildly. We live in an era where unfortunately a young lady lost her life at the hands of a police officer in England. Then Ashling Murphy at 23 years of age, lost her life. Why do men think this is okay?”

Adjourning for pre-sentence reports, she remarked: “When someone arms themselves with material to pass themselves off as a police officer in their car, it is sinister. It doesn’t take much to stretch that to patrolling the streets at night looking for lone females.”

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