The CAFADA project is researching innovations in social care in relation to domestic abuse. One of the workstreams is focused on the criminal justice sector. In Scotland, as part of this workstream, we are finding out about the work of domestic abuse court advocacy services. In 2021, we interviewed practitioners in two court advocacy services in Scotland about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their work and the experiences of children and women affected by domestic abuse. While advocacy services adapted quickly to providing services remotely, across the criminal justice system in general, we saw the pandemic roll back on previous developments that had been made to help keep children and women affected by domestic abuse safer. This blog summarises emerging findings from this work, which we provided as evidence to the Scottish Government’s inquiry into Women in the Justice System.
Domestic abuse court advocacy services provide support and safety planning to people affected by domestic abuse as they go through criminal court processes. For example, they provide information about the court processes and about the outcomes of hearings. Court advocacy services also support the person affected by domestic abuse to share their experience and make court professionals aware of this. They may provide information to the court about measures needed to ensure the safety of victims, such as a Non-Harassment Order. Court advocacy services may also offer support to those affected by domestic abuse by linking with other agencies, including acting on their behalf in Multi Agency Risk Assessment Conferences (MARACs), which bring agencies together to develop safety plans for those considered at high risk from domestic abuse. The largest domestic abuse court advocacy services in Scotland are ASSIST (Advocacy Support Safety Information Services Together), operating in the West of Scotland, and EDDACS (Edinburgh Domestic Abuse Court Support), operating in Edinburgh. Court advocacy services are not available throughout all of Scotland, though in some areas IDAAs (Independent Domestic Abuse Advocates) or other advocacy services may be available to provide some elements of these services.
From the initial phase of our study, it was notable that court advocacy services adapted quickly to working in the pandemic. This was helped in that both EDDACS and ASSIST primarily provided support to women by telephone before the pandemic. So, while the workers had to shift to working from home, for women receiving the services there was less of a change in how the service was delivered. Nonetheless, one change for court advocacy workers was the loss of informal team support in an emotionally taxing job, such as offering a colleague a chat over a cup of tea after a difficult call; in our CAFADA research, court advocacy workers described looking for different ways to provide support to each other while working from home.
Court advocacy services do not operate in isolation, they are only one part of the many organisations interacting in the criminal justice system. Many challenges arose for court advocacy workers in dealing with the responses to the covid-19 pandemic from other organisations they work with. For example, changes were made to how people accessed court buildings in response to covid-19. Our research is finding that, in some cases, this removed protections for those affected by domestic abuse, such as separate entrances to court buildings, which aim to prevent perpetrators of domestic abuse from continuing their abuse of women and children in court buildings and through the court process.
A particular issue for court advocacy services during restrictions was their reduced ability to access information about the court process and, therefore, to share this information with women affected by domestic abuse. The CAFADA research is finding that this affected the ability of services to support women to understand and participate in court processes, for example by making it difficult to find out and inform a woman that a hearing she was due to attend and give evidence at was being rescheduled. For domestic abuse cases in particular, the information flow through advocacy services is crucial for children and women’s safety. Advocacy services will seek, for example, to make contact with a woman urgently where there is a change to the perpetrator’s bail conditions that affects her and her children’s safety, and to support her with safety planning. Where partnership working is operating well, professionals in the criminal justice system may inform advocacy services before a change is made to bail conditions; they may seek information on the implications for children’s and women’s safety of changes to bail and put this information before the court. Our interviews with court advocacy services found that a variety of measures put in place to respond to covid-19 significantly hindered the access of court advocacy services to information, without addressing the particular impact of these measures on women and children affected by domestic abuse.
Court advocacy workers in the CAFADA research suggested that the overall criminal justice responses to Covid-19 exacerbated existing problems for women and children affected by domestic abuse, failing to consider the particular impacts of responses to the pandemic on the safety of children and women affected by domestic abuse. You can read more about our emerging findings in our response to Scottish Government’s call for evidence on Women in the Justice System.