AS the criminal justice system prepares a new approach in a bid to reverse the persistently low conviction rates for domestic violence crimes, one woman today lays bare the reality of an abusive relationship.
Abigail Lyle, whose former boyfriend was jailed for six months for a series of attacks on her, agreed to share her disturbing story to encourage other women living in violent relationships to break the cycle, seek help and to see their perpetrator brought to justice.
In an interview with The Detail, the 26-year-old sets out the speed with which she came to accept horrifying levels of violence on a regular basis at the hands of Jonathan Cresswell during their nine-month relationship. She outlines how:
• She was horrifically beaten for hours at a time.
• Jonathan regularly strangled her until she went limp.
• She thought she was going to die during a terrifying beating lasting hours in Castle Leslie Forest.
• Her life has now moved on and she is living happily in England with her new boyfriend.
The police in Northern Ireland deal with over 20,000 incidents a year involving domestic abuse, but less than half are recorded as actual crimes and formal action – for example someone being charged or cautioned – is taken in less than half of these.
Now a specialist domestic violence court is to start running in Derry as a pilot scheme. It will fast-track cases and build in support for the victims, many of whom currently withdraw their complaints because of fear and manipulation when waiting for their case to come to court.
The violent assaults inflicted on Abigail, who is from Bangor, are sadly not rare or even unusual but they do often take place behind closed doors and out of sight.
Abigail eventually reported the abuse and her case went to court in September 2010.
Her former boyfriend, a show jumper from Armagh, was jailed for six months after he admitted five charges of assault occasioning actual bodily harm and one of common assault between Valentine’s Day 2009 and August of the same year.
In her interview, Abigail describes what initially drew her to Cresswell and how quickly she came to comply with his regime of terror.
This scenario is a familiar one within police stations, prosecutors’ offices and in courts throughout Northern Ireland but many domestic violence cases never reach a court room. Women are often afraid to report abuse to the police and, of those who do, a large proportion later withdraw their statements.
Earlier this month, a High Court Judge in Belfast said that wife-beaters were getting off “scot free” because their alleged victims withdraw their complaints. Mr Justice Treacy said: “It does rankle with me that thugs who attack their spouces and partners frequently get off scot-free because they can terrorise them directly or indirectly to withdraw their statement.”
Other judges take a different view. In the same week a man who bit his ex-partner’s face and pulled out her hair during a drink-fuelled assault was spared prison after his victim wrote a letter to the court pleading for leniency. Billy Allen (34), from Bangor, had his six month sentence suspended for three years at Ards Magistrates Court. District Judge Mark Hamill said: “This had better be a one off”.
The cycle of attack and apology/asking for forgiveness is a common feature of domestic abuse cases. For Abigail violence became an integral part of her relationship – although, looking back she is now shocked at what she came to view as acceptable.
New figures reveal that a staggering 22,780 incidents with a domestic abuse motivation were recorded by the PSNI between June 2010 and June 2011.
However, of these, only 9,398 were recorded as crimes by the police and less than half of these crimes (46%) resulted in someone being charged, summonsed, receiving a caution or other formal sanction. The crimes include violence against the person and breaches of non-molestation orders.
Women’s Aid claims that at least one in every four women experience domestic violence in their lifetime but that less than half of all incidents are reported to the police.
Marie Brown, director of Foyle Women’s Aid, said the criminal justice system is often terrifying for women who are already isolated and ground down.
“Quite often women say they feel like they are fighting the cases themselves and these women are already worn out by their experiences. Many women are in court processes for three, four or even five years,” she said.
“Many victims have told me that sometimes it might have been easier to stay and take the abuse than to step away. There is something very wrong with this.
“I have worked on cases where we have worked with a victim for 10 years before they were ready to go to court. There needs to be an awareness of the difficulties and we need to look at the victims’ needs. I would like to see cases getting into court faster and also for women not to have to wait around all day for their cases to begin.”
It was only after seeking help and receiving support from Women’s Aid and a specially-trained officer in the PSNI that Abigail started to see her relationship for what it was.
In a bid to improve the low conviction rate, and to speed up the court process, the specialist domestic court pilot scheme will start in Northern Ireland next month. The pilot will be based at Londonderry Magistrates’ Court in Derry but it is hoped that it will eventually be extended across Northern Ireland.
The Specialist Domestic Violence Court (SDVC) programme has been running in England since 2005 and involves police, prosecutors and magistrates specially trained in dealing with domestic violence. By the end of March this year, there were 143 SDVC systems in 176 magistrates’ courts in England and Wales.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Agencies work together to identify, track and risk assess domestic violence cases, support victims of domestic violence and share information better so that more offenders are brought to justice.”
A spokeswoman for the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS) said: “Following a number of meetings between NICTS and the Public Prosecution Service, PSNI and relevant voluntary agencies it has been agreed to implement new listing arrangements in respect of criminal cases involving allegations of domestic violence. These will be listed on a specified day and time before District Judge McElholm.
“The rationale for the new listing arrangements will be to minimise the amount of time that victims of domestic violence have to wait at court for the case to be heard. It is also important to ensure that appropriate support is available and we are pleased that Witness Support and Foyle Women’s Aid plan to support victims during the initiative.
“Similar arrangements in other jurisdictions use an Independent Domestic Violence Adviser to provide additional support to victims at court as well as pre and post court. The appointment of advisers is currently being considered by the Department of Justice.”
Abigail Lyle is one of the few to have seen her abuser brought to justice without a specialist system in place. She found the wait and the process terrifying – but ultimately worthwhile.
The Department of Justice said that its Minister David Ford could not be interviewed about the pilot scheme “due to diary commitments” – even though we did not specify a time or date in our request.
However, a spokesman for the department said: “This new listing initiative involves grouping criminal cases about allegations of domestic violence which will be heard at Londonderry Magistrates’ Court.
“The initiative, which includes the use of specifically trained PPS prosecutors and in-court access to various victim support services, will test if new listing arrangements make going to court easier for victims of domestic violence.”
Marie Brown continued: “We are delighted that the specialist courts pilot is happening. It’s not before time. We hope it will build confidence within the community here and help women to get justice.
“There is a very high rate of domestic violence in the Foyle area and a large number of cases are withdrawn from court.
One woman suffers domestic violence every 21 minutes and the figures are increasing.
“We hope that better sentencing and sanctions for perpetrators will encourage others to come forward to report what is happening to them.”
Marie said it is important to work with victims at their own pace.
She said: “If you push them, they are more likely to fall out of the process. If they are supported they are more likely to remain within the system.
“A lot of the fallout from the court services is about the unknown and the fear of women. We hope that there will be more knowledge and understanding within these new courts.
She thinks that the specialist court will save money and time.
“It is a smart approach which will also hopefully result in less abuse of the court process by the perpetrators. They will be coming up in front of trained judges who will recognise them. We currently know some men who go on to abuse two or three women,” she continued.
“Sexual violence is also increasingly a feature of domestic violence and I would hope that this can also be dealt with by the specialist court. Quite often women will disclose rape to us as an aside but are not ready to take it forward.”
Abigail Lyle is one of the lucky survivors. The harsh reality is that domestic violence can have fatal consequences.
Marie said: “There have always been women dying in Northern Ireland and there are always women at risk of dying.
Working in this organisation, we also hear about deaths from suicide and early deaths from cancer due to the stress of living in an abusive environment.”
• Women’s Aid’s Domestic Violence Helpline can be contacted 24 hours a day on 0800 917 1414.