Scotland must introduce formal reviews on domestic murders to help save lives, according to leading violence against women organisations.
The demand comes as the latest Scottish Government statistics revealed that though the number of homicides in 2017-18 had fallen to 59 – an all-time low – 13 out of 14 women murdered had been killed at home. Half were killed by an intimate or former partner and only one had been killed by a stranger.
Charities including Scottish Women’s Aid and Safe Lives said that domestic homicide reviews allowed important lessons to be learned and more targeted prevention work to be done. Such reviews have been carried out in England and Wales since 2011 when someone is killed by a partner, former partner or someone they are related to.
Academics argued that as homicide figures had begun to plateau, it was now important to focus on murders committed in the domestic sphere. The statistics also showed that 55 per cent of men were killed at home.
Criminologists claimed that the work of the Violence Reduction Unit, first set up by Strathclyde Police in 2005 partly in response to claims that Scotland was amongst the most violent countries in the developed world, had been effective in tackling street and gang crime. The focus should now be on preventing homicides in the home, they said.
Women who have been killed in Scotland recently include mother and charity worker, Alyson Watt, 52, who was stabbed in her home in Paisley this June by partner Gary Brown. Brown was sentenced for at least 27 years in prison.
Last October Moira Gilbertson, 57, was also killed by her partner Roger Crossan. He is now serving a life sentence. He had already been convicted of domestic violence in 2011 and was jailed for eight years in 1999 in England for the manslaughter of a former partner.
Without domestic homicide reviews in Scotland we are lacking the whole picture to fully assess the circumstances of these murders. Suzanne Jacob, Safe Lives
Suzanne Jacob, chief executive of domestic abuse charity Safe Lives, said: “It’s really positive to see the significant drop in overall homicides in Scotland. Every death is one too many, though, and with the statistics showing that half of the fourteen female victims of homicide last year were killed by a partner or ex-partner, it’s clear we’ve got more to do.
“Without domestic homicide reviews in Scotland we are lacking the whole picture to fully assess the circumstances of these murders.”
The organisation is currently working on a Scottish Government funded multi-agency scheme to identify those at greatest risk of serious harm or murder.
“The home should be a place of safety, not fear,” Jacob added. “And when someone has managed to exit a domestic abuse situation they should know they will be protected from further harm.”
She highlighted the new Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 as a positive step that “will create a greater opportunity to criminalise controlling behaviours which is a very welcome step in protecting victims and their children”.
The bill, which has been widely welcomed by violence against women organisations as groundbreaking, will make coercive control an offence for the first time. “Controlling behaviour is the greatest precursor to serious harm and homicide,” added Jacob. “Identifying coercive control early provides an opportunity to support and protect victims and their children.”
Marsha Scott, chief executive of Scottish Women’s Aid, backed the call for domestic homicide reviews claiming that organisations were “pushing at an open door”. She said reviews were needed because data provided by the annual statistics was insufficient to understand the problem.
The organisation has this year agreed to team up with Women’s Aid in England and Wales to produce a joint report on femicide – the killing of a woman or girl on account of her gender – which it expects to publish early next year.
“Domestic homicides are very low in Scotland but they have remained relatively stable,” she stated. “There is a lot to be gained from introducing domestic homicide reviews in Scotland.
“It takes a look at the whole system, what were the signals, the testimony of a wide range of sources…it provides the big picture. But we would need a very definite Scottish approach.”
Scotland defines domestic violence or abuse as happening between intimate partners or former partners, while the English definition includes family members.
“I often say Scotland has the best policing on domestic violence in Europe,” Scott added. “But it’s still far from good enough. I think the police would even admit that.”
Susan McVie, a criminology professor at Edinburgh University and researcher for the Scottish Centre for Criminal and Justice Research, agreed that tackling domestic homicide was challenging for the police.
“The reduction has been mostly been on street based, or gang related crime. The domestic is the obvious place [for work to be done], even when this is difficult territory for the police,” she added.
“As a society we spent so much time in our homes now – we drink at home, we shop at home, we socialise there, our children spend more time than ever at home. It is a very important sphere and yet it can be very difficult for the police and others to interfere.”
She claimed that reviews could also help further research. “If we can see patterns then it’s those that will help us put proper prevention in place and perhaps see when there has been an escalation in violent behaviour,” she argued.
However she insisted it was important that data on male deaths in the domestic sphere should not be overlooked, with men involved in a “culture of violence” in some communities that could see them killed by friends and acquaintances.
We are examining new ways of tackling violent crime such as identifying vulnerability in communities. Gillian MacDonald, Police Scotland
Police Scotland assistant chief constable, Gillian MacDonald, said: “We acknowledge that the majority of homicides are carried out in a residential setting and we recognise that a number of complex social factors can influence this. Working with partners from government, public and third sector organisations, we are examining new ways of tackling violent crime such as identifying vulnerability in communities.”
Justice Secretary, Humza Yousaf MSP, added: “Gender based violence is absolutely a human rights issue, it is about abuse of power and we are working across government and with police, courts and support services to eradicate it.
“Every one of these deaths is a tragedy, and while almost halving the number of women killed by a partner or ex-partner in the last decade is something to welcome, even one death is one too many.
“We also need to be clear that we need to stop violence against women and girls before it can escalate to such horrific consequences and we are working with partners not only to eradicate violence, but to create a society that is more equal.”