Virtual court hearings deliver real justice for domestic abuse victims in North Wales
A pioneering system of virtual court hearings is making sure that perpetrators of domestic violence in North Wales face swift justice – and observe social distancing at the same time.
The system set in place by North Wales Police – already receiving attention from forces in Wales and across the border – ensures protection for the victims of the rising tide of domestic violence in coronavirus lockdown.
It means the police can still make applications via remote court hearings for Domestic Violence Protection Orders which gives breathing space for victims to consider their options and be provided with the support they need.
As a result, the offender can be prevented from having contact with the victim and also prevented from returning to a residence for up to 28 days.
The new system has been praised by North Wales Police and Crime Commissioner Arfon Jones who has made the prevention of domestic abuse one of the priorities of his policing plan.
The man behind the new plan is Assistant Force Solicitor Gareth Preston who has overseen the introduction of conference call courts in Mold to deal with North Wales domestic violence cases.
He said: “Lord Chief Justice Burnett called for the justice system to find ways of hearing cases remotely on March 17 and by Monday, March 23, we were ready to go with all domestic violence cases moved to Mold to be heard by a district judge.
“There might typically be up to seven people at a hearing with three magistrates, prosecution and defence representatives, court officials and a defendant and magistrates.
“But now it is just the district judge and his Legal Adviser who observe social distancing and everyone else on a telephone or online and we can send all the relevant documents by e-mail.
“Even the defendant can attend remotely and brief the duty solicitor by phone and we have actually had a couple of cases which have been contested and that’s important because we mustn’t disadvantage the accused.
“This allows people facing these orders to be heard and have a fair hearing, without any of the participants being put at any unnecessary additional risk.
“We are there to maintain public safety but also to maintain the law and if these cases were not being heard because of safe distancing then victims of domestic violence would be going back into danger.
“We were pleased that we were able to get this up and running quickly and I’m very grateful to the courts for their support and there have been a number of places looking at how we have done this.”
Arfon Jones said: “This is an excellent example of partnership working to safeguard the victims of crime in the face of the challenges provided by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Tackling domestic violence has been one of my priorities from the start and reporting remains stable for now but a significant proportion are being linked to tensions caused by the lockdown. Although we are living in unprecedented times it is no excuse for such abuse whatever form it takes.
“The threat of the pandemic means that home is supposed to be the safest place any of us could be right now but sadly that isn’t true for victims of domestic abuse.
“It can mean that they are now having to spend even more time with their abuser and are at even greater risk of violence and the equally abusive coercive control.
“There is no alternative to the lockdown in the face of the threat we all of us face but for those experiencing domestic violence, social distancing means being trapped inside with an abuser.
“This remains a crime though and I want to reassure anyone who feels they are at risk that the police and the many excellent support services that exist to help them stand ready.”
The Court are using the BT Meet Me system to conduct hearings and Gareth Preston said it had worked well and added: “I can see some of the benefits of this system being kept after the lockdown has ended.
“There’s no reason why we can’t deal with more cases remotely as it would save time and expense – I have a 60-mile round trip to Mold but I might have to get up earlier to make sure that documents are ready for the judge to read at 9am.
“I come from a background of 12 years as a prosecutor and tackling domestic violence was something I felt passionate about and prosecuting it was first and foremost a means of protecting people.
“Being able to hold these hearing s means that protective orders can be put in place and if they are breached then the perpetrators can and do go to jail.”
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