Solicitor General Alison Di Rollo: Prosecuting Domestic Abuse in Scotland

Solicitor General Alison Di Rollo: Prosecuting Domestic Abuse in Scotland

It was an absolute honour to speak at the Scottish Women’s annual conference this year and to see familiar faces present from so many different agencies.

There was a real energy in the room which, I believe, comes from our shared sense of purpose. We need to work collaboratively to understand and uncover offending; to prosecute those who have offended, to support those affected and prevent future offending –with our common goal being to eradicate domestic abuse from modern Scottish society.

The focus of the conference is another significant milestone in the journey toward addressing domestic abuse in Scotland – the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill.

The Bill, if passed, will signify a seismic change in the law. It will make criminal the insidious abusive behaviour that at present we are unable to prosecute.

It sends a clear signal as to what modern day Scottish society aspires to – equality and respect between genders – and what collectively we will not tolerate – abusive behaviour in all its forms, whether that be physical, sexual, verbal, financial or other forms of non-physical abuse  coercive and controlling behaviour. A lot of progress has made from a legal perspective on domestic abuse in recent years, and police and prosecutors have continued to refine their approach.

In 2013, The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) appointed the first National Procurator Fiscal for Domestic Abuse, Anne Marie Hicks, to enhance our response to tackling domestic abuse.

Earlier this year, COPFS and Police Scotland relaunched our Joint Protocol on domestic abuse, after in-depth stakeholder consultation.  The Protocol commits both of our organisations to a consistent and robust approach to domestic abuse and recognises the significant and enduring impact which domestic abuse can have on victims and children.

Over the past year, the law in relation to domestic abuse has evolved with the creation of the statutory aggravation of domestic abuse, which courts must take account of in sentencing, and the specific offence of intimate image abuse, a crime which has been made all the easier to commit by advances in technology.

While there are significant challenges for prosecutors in domestic abuse cases, there has also been a gap in the law, which has meant that some of the controlling, demeaning, isolating behaviour that often epitomises domestic abuse has not been recognised as criminal.  This type of behaviour has existed in a kind of netherworld – not acceptable, but also not, of itself, illegal.

I’m proud of the role of the Crown, particularly my predecessor Lesley Thomson QC, in galvanising action to criminalise the full extent of domestic abuse. As Solicitor General, in 2014 she led the way by calling for the creation of a specific offence of domestic abuse, to recognise the true experiences of victims of long-term abuse.

The new Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill creates an offence of engaging in a course of abusive conduct towards a partner or ex-partner with intention of or recklessness about causing that person physical or psychological harm. The course of criminal conduct may include behaviours already recognised as criminal, such as violent, threatening or intimidating behaviour, but can also include behaviour intended or likely to isolate, humiliate, degrade, subjugate, frighten, punish, control, regulate, monitor, or deprive or restrict the victim’s freedom of action.

The creation of the domestic abuse offence will assist prosecutors in holding more perpetrators to account by enabling us to prosecute courses of abusive behaviour not currently recognised as criminal, including coercive and controlling behaviour. By enabling us to prosecute the totality of the abusive behaviour, rather than simply isolated incidents of violent or threatening behaviour, this will more naturally reflect the very real, lived experiences of victims of domestic abuse and put the true picture of offending before the court.

There was a lot of interesting discussion at the conference on the challenges and opportunities that the Bill will bring.

From a prosecutors perspective, evidence-gathering in relation to a coercive control type offence may be a more challenging process than, for example, for an assault or breach of the peace.

A more nuanced offence will require evidence to be gathered in innovative ways. The evidence gathering process must be robust to enable the whole picture to be presented. Evidence sources may include friends, family, children, neighbours or work colleagues who may have been aware of some of the behaviours and the impact on the victim.  The police may look for evidence from other sources too, such as social media.

We also recognise that proof of the new offence will usually require victims, and in some cases, children, describing their experiences; this is not an easy task in an adversarial criminal justice system where the burden of the proof is on the Crown. We are committed to doing all we can as a criminal justice system to recognise that and, working collaboratively with other agencies and organisations, to find ways of supporting victims to give their evidence in the best way possible.

The new provisions in the Bill also recognise the harm that domestic abuse does to children and the need to offer them better protection. The creation of an aggravation of involving a child in domestic abuse will allow the likely impact on children to be recognised, recorded and taken into account in sentencing. The enhanced provisions in relation to non-harassment orders, allowing the court to grant an order in respect of a child,  residing with either the victim or the perpetrator, or for whom the child aggravation relates, could also offer additional protection and reassurance to children after the court proceedings have ended.

I am very conscious of the responsibility of the Crown to use the new legislative provisions to the full, to prosecute robustly and effectively in the public interest; meeting the evidential and legal challenges that this type of offending presents by our professionalism and expertise in the field. This ground-breaking legislation will give us important new weaponry in the fight to rid our nation of this insidious crime.

The criminal justice response is only one part – an important part – of a wider societal response. There is a need to raise awareness among the public and create a society where domestic abuse is not only recognised as a crime but is universally condemned as unacceptable.

The Lord Advocate and I and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service are committed to playing our part in tackling domestic abuse, and other forms of gender-based violence. We shall continue to work effectively with other partner agencies and organisations, including Scottish Women’s Aid, to prevent and hopefully one day eradicate abuse in our society.

– Solicitor General Alison Di Rollo

This Is Why Survivors Need The Istanbul Convention

This Is Why Survivors Need The Istanbul Convention

CW: mentions of violence against women, personal account of rape, forensic medical examinations, trauma.

When my court case was dropped, my appeal failed and my rapist walked free, it was more than just devastation I had to deal with. Since then I’ve carried with me a profound and cavernous sense of grief I know not how to shake off.

After two years of intrusive interviews, internal exams, long periods of police silence and soaring anxiety, I was denied the burial I needed to move on from.

The sense of injustice remains just as palpable to me as the day it slipped from my officer’s mouth. The words fell into her lap as she sat on my couch, face downcast, staring at her knees. Slow and heavy, they hit me like a fist to the gut. And yet there they were. And there they remain. A fist to the gut. Just as palpable.

I haul this dead loss with me everywhere I go, through every new job, every new relationship. Endlessly, I look for a place to put it to rest, but I find nothing. Life rolls on. I feel the same.

So imagine the fire ignited in me when I realised there was legislation on Britain’s doorstep that would put the wellbeing of survivors like me first, not that of our perpetrators. And then the escalating anger that came from understanding that, like so many other women’s rights issues, it too had been swept under the UK Government’s carpet.

The Istanbul Convention (IC) is a sophisticated piece of legislation that outlines a survivor-focused approach to prosecution, ensures the adequate funding of women’s services and the strategic implementation of prevention of violence against women in all forms – be it female genital mutilation (FGM), rape, domestic violence, or so-called honour-based violence.

It is comprehensive, it is effective, and it is designed by women – absolute experts in law, trauma, therapy and justice – for women. As such, we – the survivors, service workers and allies that make up IC Change – will not rest until it is properly passed into law.

David Cameron actually signed a pledge to see the Istanbul Convention made law back in 2012. Now, as we near the end of 2017, after the harassment scandal of Westminster and the viral impact of the #metoo movement, the need for the Istanbul Convention is increasingly critical. Not least because there are some great strategies Parliament could very well use to tackle the culture of misogyny it seems to be so confused about dealing with.

Earlier this month, thanks to the law we, together with former MP Dr Eilidh Whiteford, passed in April this year, the first ever public government report into the progression of the Istanbul Convention was issued on time and by the deadline. Yet, despite promises made by Theresa May, Home Secretary Amber Rudd and overwhelming cross-party support, it showed little of the advancement it deserves. It was not good enough, and we demand to see more.

We must continue to hold the UK Government to account for this. We must continue to be heard. We must continue to fight – as a very real, very human 51 per cent of the United Kingdom – to be protected from harm and respected as equals. And as ever, we look to Scotland to help us achieve this goal.

Scotland as a nation has already made great strides towards the advancement of gender equality in Britain, not least for its very vocal campaigning against the rape clause, the two-child tax credit limit and, let us not forget, the furthering of the Istanbul Convention through the work of MPs such as and Gavin Newlands and former MP Dr Whiteford.

But there is more that needs to be done – and we need Scotland’s help to do it.

Support us, support our cause, and make sure IC Change remain an ever-present force in Parliament to be reckoned with. Sign our petition, follow us on Twitter, and support us as we continue to campaign to see this battle, one of so many thousands of women, finally ended. We all deserve to see the injustice of gender-based violence buried for good, and if we can do it in the next few years, it will, at the very least, make the suffering I have felt that little bit more bearable.

– Jen Selby, IC Change

Scottish Women’s Aid are proud to have worked with many organisations to support the progression of the Istanbul Convention, including Engender and Women’s Aid Federations in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Ending Domestic Abuse: Are We Getting Anywhere?

Ending Domestic Abuse: Are We Getting Anywhere?

Over the course of the last two years, the Speaking Out: Recalling Women’s Aid in Scotland project collected oral history interviews with 62 people involved in the 40-plus years of Women’s Aid in Scotland. Service users, workers, volunteers, academics, and politicians shared their experiences of the movement, from establishing and accessing the earliest shelters in Edinburgh and Glasgow to witnessing this year’s launch of landmark legislation recognising emotional and psychological domestic abuse.

In the current climate of funding cuts, political upheaval, and misogynistic trolls, there are certainly enough challenges to keep the movement busy. So why did we spend the last two years looking back?

It can be difficult to gain perspective on how far we’ve come when new challenges constantly loom on the horizon. Taking a moment to recognise the movement’s progress is re-energising, and goes some way in countering the burnout effect of bad news.

In a small but meaningful example, you may have seen that Lochaber and Skye Police recently tweeted an open ‘letter’ to an unnamed woman on Skye experiencing domestic abuse (they later stated that it was for all women, everywhere). They identified a range of abusive behaviours she might be experiencing, and outlined the support available to her:

While a series of tweets from the police might not exactly signal the end of the patriarchy, what this does capture is the radical change in attitudes made possible by the Women’s Aid movement. For many of the women interviewed by the project, a world in which the police use public platforms to call out domestic abuse and offer support to survivors was unimaginable when they began their work. Just 30 years ago, in the same area of Scotland (and across the rest of the country), pioneers of the movement were told ‘that sort of thing doesn’t happen here’:

“We were doing a radio programme on Radio Scotland [in the early 1980s] in Inverness and a couple of volunteers went up to speak and this minister phoning up saying, ‘A Skye man would never abuse a woman.  Never lift his hands to a woman’.  I think he really believed it, you know?  He believed what he was saying so I think attitudes made it hard for us, or harder for us.”   – Marilyn Ross, former Ross-shire Women’s Aid worker.

The women in the movement refused to accept complacency from those who were in positions of public protection, naming domestic abuse as a pervasive, public issue, rather than a private one. They offered a truly radical education:

“I think one of the strangest things that I’ve ever seen was a room full of big old fashioned coppers reduced to tears by the testimony of a survivor … a small petite little woman who got up and spoke in front of this room full of cops about what it was like for her and what she went through. And what it was like when they came out and what they could have done differently. These great big six foot five guys with tears in their eyes…” – Liz Fotheringham, former Inverness Women’s Aid worker and founding member of Lochaber Women’s Aid.

These stories all happened on and around Skye, but they’re indicative of a country-wide culture change. It is because of the tireless work of women in Women’s Aid to educate and inform the police, the media, and the public that today, Lochaber and Skye Police receive international positive press coverage and support for their open letter, and many women feel able to publically share their own experiences of abuse in response.

The past informs the present – understanding our history allows us to face our future with resilience and a sense of community. By all accounts, we still have a long way to go. Violence against women has new platforms, perpetrators still hold positions of power, and austerity continues to restrict the space that workers have to provide the best possible service.

However, the stories collected by the project are ones of challenges being overcome, time and time again, due to the resilience, solidarity, and creative thinking of the women in this movement. These qualities continue to be central to the work the Women’s Aid network do today to end domestic abuse and its root cause – gender inequality.

We hope the Speaking Out project has been successful in drawing together evidence of the power the movement has to transform individual lives and entire communities. The work of the last 40 years achieved more than many thought possible. No matter how far we have to go, Women’s Aid has brought us significantly closer than we were to a safer, fairer, and better world for women in Scotland.

“That contrast between 1982 [joining the movement as an admin worker] and around about 2007 [becoming CEO of Scottish Women’s Aid], unbelievable. To have the overview to see that is quite something. You know, I feel in some ways quite privileged because I know that younger workers or workers who are involved more recently sometimes go, we’re never getting anywhere. And I’m thinking, ‘we are’. We are, we really are. And we’ll go on getting places.” – Lily Greenan, former CEO of Scottish Women’s Aid.

Blog by Susie Dalton, Heritage Engagement Officer at Scottish Women’s Aid.

Although the project is coming to an end, a number of resources continue to be available to local groups and the public. The project exhibition, covering the history of the movement and featuring oral history interviews collected by the project, is available to borrow from Scottish Women’s Aid – get in touch for more details. Our documentary film, learning resource, and snippets from the oral history interviews (featured in this post) are all available on the project website, and the publication will launch on the website on the 15th December. We’ve also developed an archive toolkit to assist local groups in collecting their own history – get in touch if you’d like to know more.

“Hello, you’re through to the helpline”

“Hello, you’re through to the helpline”

I don’t know why I called tonight.  My friend gave me the number and I laughed at her.  That’s not for me, I thought.  People phone helplines when they’re suicidal.  But my husband is out with his friends tonight and I’ve had a glass of wine.  Dutch courage.

When I dial the number I still don’t know what I want to say.  I listen to a message and almost hang up.  I feel like I’m wasting their time.  The phone rings once, twice and on the third ring a woman with a kind voice answers.

“Hello, you’re through to the helpline”.

I’m speechless for a moment.  Again I think about hanging up but something keeps me on the line.  “I don’t know what to say” are my first words.  How daft!  She must think I’m a time waster.

“Just take your time” she says.  I take a deep breath.  I tell her about my husband.  About the way he speaks to me.  Comments about my clothes, my weight, my personal hygiene.  He hates my friends – especially Kathy – she’s the one who gave me this number.  She’s too bossy, apparently – bitter because she doesn’t have a man of her own.

But that’s not abuse.  He’s never hit me – he wouldn’t.  He’s shoved me a few times but that’s normal.   And he loves the kids – he’s a great dad.  Sometimes I think it’s me who’s a bad mum.  I can’t seem to do anything right.  He calls me the most awful names.

The woman on the other end of the line is quiet but I know she’s listening.  It takes me ages to get my words out.  I start crying, she must think I’m ridiculous.  “I’m sorry”, I say, but she says I don’t need to be sorry.  She asks me some questions and I end up telling her everything.  Things I’ve never said out loud before.  It feels like a weight has been lifted.

I thought she would tell me to pull myself together.  My husband makes great money and I don’t need to work – everyone says I’m lucky.  I don’t know why I’m feeling so low, why I cry all the time.  Maybe I’m going mad, like he says.  Sometimes he gets fed up and stops speaking to me – won’t even look at me.  Last time it was 8 days.

She asks me how I spend my time.  Cleaning and looking after the baby, I say.  I don’t really go out unless I’m with him – he constantly phones me to check where I am so it’s too much hassle.  It’s hard to keep in touch with people – he hates it when I text or go on Facebook so I don’t bother anymore.  She asks me if I feel isolated.  I do.

She tells me this sounds like coercive control.  I’ve no idea what that means so she explains it.  It’s like she’s describing my life.

She asks me what I would like to happen next.  I say I don’t know.  She tells me about safety planning but I don’t think I want to leave him.  Not yet.  She asks if I’d like the number for my local Women’s Aid group and I write this down.  She’s made me think about why I’m so unhappy and I’m starting to imagine what my life could be like without him.

I thank her for listening and for believing me.  She has made me feel stronger.  I have a lot to think about.

“Take care”, she says.

At Scotland’s Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline we won’t put pressure on you, or tell you what to do. We know it isn’t always easy to pick up the phone. When you call the helpline, your call will be answered by fully trained call handlers who have lots of experience supporting people affected by domestic abuse and forced marriage.

You don’t need to know what to say, just know that we believe you, and we are here for you.

Call: 0800 027 1234 | Email: | Website:

one thousand words

one thousand words

Photographs show us snapshots of lives and experiences but they can also mislead, misinform and show versions of a story that we wouldn’t always recognise. Most photos that try to portray domestic abuse do the latter.

They tell us only young, white, slim, beautiful women experience abuse and that their abuser is physically violent, broadly built: a brutish modern day neanderthal. They say victims of abuse are weak, cowardly and passive.

But survivors of domestic abuse, such as Lilly*, tell a very different story: “There were small but definite acts of resistance,” she says. “You can still be a strong woman in an abusive situation. In a way you fight it every day of your life when you are in it.”

When we speak about violence against women our society tends to equate being a victim with being weak in a way that we do not with other crimes. Photos of domestic abuse reinforce this perception: a woman is shown cowering, helpless, head in her hands as a clenched, tattooed fist looms over her. She is stripped of her agency as we judge her for not leaving her abuser, and assure ourselves we would act differently if we were ever in that situation. Believe it or not, most survivors of domestic abuse would have thought the same.

The continued misrepresentation of domestic abuse as an entirely physical phenomenon – as black eyes, tears or broken bones – stops women from reporting and seeking support for domestic abuse.

For many years women’s organisations have supported women who have lived through years of emotional, sexual and financial abuse, who still question the validity of their experience on the basis that their abuser never raised his fist. We also know from survivors that the psychological trauma inflicted by abusers, the control, humiliation and degradation, often stays with them for far longer than physical pain.

Abusers are not simply white, working class men with an alcohol problem, and they certainly don’t need to be physically violent to try to break their victim.

“If photographs always show hitting or bruises it means that men who don’t hit absolve themselves of the label abuser because they don’t leave bruises,” says Mariama, a survivor of abuse. “Also it makes people think that if a woman doesn’t have bruises she must be OK.”

An EU study has shown that one in three women across the EU has experienced some form of intimate partner violence since the age of 15. That’s not just a statistic. It’s your neighbour. It’s your sister. Your teacher. Your boss. Your friend. Your daughter. It might even be you.

The damage inflicted​ our use of misleading domestic abuse images is severe

Domestic abuse knows no boundaries of race, religion, disability or class. Nobody thinks it will happen to them, or that they might be vulnerable to such horrors.

The damage inflicted by our use of misleading domestic abuse images is severe. It shapes our understanding of whose experience we consider to be valid, and whose is invalid. It influences who we believe and how we respond when someone we know tells us they have experienced abuse. It bewilders women experiencing fear and anxiety in their relationship. How are the women who don’t look like the photos we exclusively use to represent domestic abuse supposed to think of themselves and their experiences?

As Pia, another survivor, puts it, these kinds of photos give people permission to ask why someone didn’t leave, rather than asking why the man didn’t stop hurting her.

For women to recognise their own experiences they must see themselves represented. For our society to take seriously the experiences and trauma of women who have lived through domestic abuse they must see women affected who are older; they must see women of colour, they must see disabled women, fat women, professional women, young women, working class women, they must see diverse women.

That is why Scottish Women’s Aid and Zero Tolerance have worked collaboratively with survivors of domestic abuse to produce One Thousand Words, a photography project by Laura Dodsworth, to represent survivors in a different way.

As we develop our understanding of domestic abuse as being a crime that does not require physical violence, we must also recognise the impact of our narrow depictions of victim-survivors of male violence. Those women who have experienced domestic abuse are victims – they have been wronged – but they are not weak. They are survivors, and their strength and courage deserves representation too.

* Some names in this article have been changed

Brenna Jessie is a Scottish feminist, activist and external affairs officer at Scottish Women’s Aid.

This article was initially published in The Guardian.

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Nudes aren’t the problem; abuse is

Nudes aren’t the problem; abuse is

Feminists and activists have long argued that violence against women is never the victim’s fault. We’ve done so against every other powerful influence within society arguing the polar opposite. The media especially can be quick to jump on this, coining catchy headlines which wrongly suggest that the victim got what they deserved, that they were somehow ‘asking for it’.

We’re told that these headlines and stories are just how the media works, it’s meant to be eye-catching, you see. Black inking that does nothing except endorse harmful ideas that a slim majority of Scots already believe and invites others to think the same.

‘What was she wearing’? ‘Had she been drinking’? ‘She provoked him.’ ‘Why doesn’t she just leave’? ‘Why did she take the pictures in the first place’?

These dangerous attitudes don’t just dominate headlines, they seep into court rooms, classrooms, staff rooms and living rooms. They are the norm.

There is no cause without effect, and the impact of these attitudes is far reaching. These attitudes stop women from asking for help for fear that their reaching out will be greeted with blame and shame. These attitudes keep women from reporting sexual violence and domestic abuse. These attitudes make us obsess over the behavior, clothing and alcohol consumption of the victim. The one responsible escapes all scrutiny.

Because that is who is missing from this conversation, isn’t it? The perpetrator: the person who chooses to inflict harm, who chooses to terrorize his victim, the one who hurts her, hits her, controls her, and manipulates her. The person invisible here is the one who breaks the law and shares, or threatens to share, her intimate images.

He has been led to believe that women’s bodies are there for his consumption, for his pleasure and for him to do with as he wishes. Society – including the media – has taught him this.

But now the spotlight is on him.

From July, a new law in Scotland means that anyone who shares or threatens to share someone else’s intimate images or videos without their consent could face up to five years in prison. Those who choose to take a path of abusive behaviour may soon face consequences.

The new law and accompanying Scottish Government awareness raising campaign are indeed progress, we hope, but alone they cannot fix a problem the scale of the one we face.

Intimate images shared between consenting adults is not the problem. The problem is perpetrators who abuse their power, breach her trust and share them without her consent, no matter their motivation. The problem is a society that endorses that behavior by asking what she could and should have done differently.

I know there is still a long way to go; victim blaming runs deep into each crevice and cranny of our communities. But it’s on each and every one of us to challenge it, change it and channel our energies towards a more equal Scotland for all.

Brenna Jessie, Scottish Women’s Aid


Image credit Gilles Lambert via Unsplash