MSPs have been warned soaring levels of domestic and sexual abuse is “an emergency situation” – amid fears the pandemic has meant victims believe there is “no safety for them in calling the police” to report violence.
The alarm was raised during a sobering meeting of Holyrood’s Justice Committee in which politicians heard that more than 40,000 court cases are now on a waiting list, causing more trauma for victims of crime.
Marsha Scott, chief executive of Scottish Women’s Aid told the committee that the figures of those reporting abuse are “shocking”.
She said: “One in four to one in five women in Scotland experience some form of domestic or sexual violence. One out of five children live with it. How much more shocking can we get? We fail to take the steps that will stop it.
“I think Covid has exacerbated it because it’s given women even fewer choices and it’s given perpetrators even more tools for controlling and abusing.”
Dr Scott added: “I think the numbers are shocking – they are ridiculous levels. They haven’t shifted in any significant amount – we’ve had 60,000-plus police calls for domestic abuse pretty much in a trend, slowly going up.
“The reality is that it is an emergency situation.”
Moira Price, procurator fiscal for domestic abuse at the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS), told MSPs that “the pandemic and periods of lockdown were very difficult and dangerous” for victims of sexual and domestic violence.
She said: “That was compounded by the fact the criminal justice system’s ability to progress criminal trials was also significantly affected – which then had the effect of adding delay and uncertainty into the experience of victims of domestic abuse who were waiting for cases to come to court.
“There are a number of cases now in the summary backlog – it’s actually 40,543 cases awaiting trial in the summary courts – it’s a 132 per cent increase in the position from March 2020, prior to the pandemic.”
Ms Price added that summary courts were able to proceed despite the pandemic but “with limited space available”.
She added: “That space was given to priority cases, particularly those involved domestic abuse and child witnesses.
“But for many solemn cases also involving victims of domestic abuse and sexual offending, the solemn courts were unable to progress trials for a number of months over the pandemic – which of course would have an impact on victims and witnesses.”
Dr Scott has warned that the court cases backlog means many victims see no benefit in reporting abuse to police.
She said: “We’re already hearing reports from our services and colleagues in the public sector criminal justice system that women are voting with their feet.
“The fact that they will not be in court anytime soon, and the ones who do come to court are almost all delayed, means that there is no safety for them in calling the police or in asking for help from the public sector.”
Sandy Brindley, chief executive of Rape Crisis Scotland said the pandemic has had “a profound impact” on survivors “being able to access support safely”.
Ms Brindley told MSPs that survivors had phoned her organisation in need of support from under their covers and from their cars “just trying to find a safe space during the lockdown to speak” adding that this was “either because they were living with their rapist or because they hadn’t told their family or who they were living with about what had happened to them”.
Ms Brindley also warned that before the pandemic even hit, Rape Crisis Scotland “had people waiting up to two years or longer for their case to get to court”.
She added: “That caused an absolutely huge amount of distress even pre-Covid.”
Ms Brindley also highlighted rape survivors being subject to “floating trail diets”, which she warned is “causing such a level of additional distress”.
MSPs were told that under the floating trial procedure, survivors and witnesses still face long waits before “they are then told their case might call during a two-week period”.
Ms Brindley added that often, vulnerable people then “get a call saying it’s been put back another three months”, which is leading to “huge uncertainties”.