Domestic violence in NI is epidemic
Domestic violence in Northern Ireland is breaking records.
Covid-19 (and lockdown) has played a part - as have efforts to see more victims come forward - but the bottom line is that domestic violence is rampant.
At the end of summer, the PSNI revealed its records for domestic violence incidents and crimes for the year to June 30. A total of 32,1127 incidents were recorded, up 1.8% on the previous year, and the highest 12-month figure since records began in 2004-05, amounting to 88 incidents per day.
The number of crimes rose an enormous 13.3% year-on-year, to 18,796. This was the second highest total on record.
All this amounts to 17 domestic abuse incidents and 10 domestic abuse crimes per 1,000 population. There were increases in all major offence types, except for sexual offences and theft. The largest volume increase related to harassment, which shot up by 1,795 recorded crimes (88.2%).
Over the year, domestic abuse comprised 18.6% of all police recorded crime, an increase from 16.2% during the previous 12 months.
The picture is grim, and raises concerns about the effect of the pandemic and associated lockdown measures.
However, it should be noted that reported incidents of domestic violence have generally been on the up since modern record-taking began.
Per the PSNI: “Since 2004/05 there has been a general increase in levels of domestic abuse incidents and crimes recorded by the police, with incident levels in 2019/20 being 52 per cent higher than those at the start of the series and crime levels 93 per cent higher.”
Women’s Aid NI is one of the leading charity’s helping those at risk of domestic abuse in Northern Ireland (along with the Men’s Advisory Project), and it said in March: “We know that the government’s advice on self or household-isolation will have a direct impact on women and children experiencing domestic violence and abuse in Northern Ireland.
“Home is often not a safe place for survivors of domestic violence and abuse. We are concerned that social distancing and self-isolation will be used as a tool of coercive and controlling behaviour by perpetrators and will shut down routes to safety and support.”
It is very likely that some of the increase in domestic violence incidents and crimes has been fuelled in part by lockdown.
According to the PSNI: “[PSNI figures] showed higher levels of calls during April and May than would have normally been expected for that time of year. While the number of calls received in June were slightly higher than the levels that would have been expected, they were lower than the previous two months…
“Domestic abuse incidents were higher in April and May 2020 than the same months in 2019 by 292 and 252 incidents respectively. The number of incidents fell in June 2020 and was 234 lower than June 2019; it should be noted that June 2019 was the highest monthly figure during 2019/20.
“When compared with the same months the previous year, levels of domestic crime were slightly higher in March and April while May was higher by 173. Domestic abuse crime in June 2020 was lower than June 2019 by 39 offences.
“These higher levels of domestic abuse crime between March and May should be seen in the context of overall police recorded crime which, during the first week of lockdown, fell to around three fifths of the expected weekly average and by the end of June had risen to between 80 and 90 per cent of the expected weekly average.”
Statistics only tell part of the story.
Domestic violence is a largely hidden crime. Women’s Aid in the UK (a partner organisation of Women’s Aid here in NI) goes so far to say that no reliable data on prevalence exists.
“In addition, prevalence estimates do not take into account important context and impact information, for example whether the violence caused fear, who experienced multiple incidents and who experienced coercive controlling behaviour.”
If there is any good news in these figures, it will be that some of the general upwards trend in recorded incidents and crimes is down to a higher proportion of victims coming forward.
When similar figures were released last year, PSNI Det Ch Insp David McBurney said: “This increase in reports of domestic abuse demonstrates our tireless work over the past number of years to increase confidence in reporting amongst victims.
“This has been possible through extensive work with our voluntary and statutory partners, education and media campaigns.”
However, at the same time Women’s Aid NI said: “While we recognise that reporting on domestic abuse is increasing, it is still a massively under reported crime.
“Many women never disclose domestic violence and do not come into contact with Women's Aid or other voluntary and statutory agencies. It is important to recognise that police statistics do not reflect the true extent of the problem.”
Reactions to the increasing rates of recorded domestic violence have been understandably aghast.
Some progress is underway. Work began on a Domestic Abuse Bill before Stormont’s collapse with RHI and, while the Justice Minister has change in that time (from Claire Sugden to Naomi Long) the bill continues to progress.
It seeks to widen the definition of criminal abuse in domestic relationships, specifically to include patterns of controlling or coercive behaviours.
However, domestic abuse is a complex problem. Broadening the definitions of what is criminal is a welcome move but will not, on its own, significantly reduce incidents and significantly increase reporting.
When the latest figures were released at the end of August, Amnesty NI called this “a life and death issue” and something the Executive needs to tackle urgency.
Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland Programme Director, said: “Northern Ireland is suffering from a domestic abuse epidemic – one that is getting worse by the week and which demands a comprehensive response from government.
“Incidents of domestic violence are now at an all-time high, and the demand for domestic abuse services has gone through the roof. Women’s refuges and other specialist charities which support victims here need additional support.
“Northern Ireland faces ongoing high demand on frontline domestic abuse services, on refuges and counselling services; services which are already under strain.”
More support for third sector organisations is a good idea. Domestic abuse is a complicated problem – and, particularly in Northern Ireland, an enormous one – and dealing with it will require work on many fronts.
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