Stormont government mulling creation of a domestic abuse code-word to be used in pharmacies

The Northern Irish government is considering introducing a code-word which spouses or partners can use to announce they are victims of domestic abuse.

Friday, 1st May 2020, 11:57 am
Updated Wednesday, 6th May 2020, 5:57 pm
Naomi Long speaking at the justice committee this week

The Northern Irish government is considering introducing a code-word which spouses or partners can use to announce they are victims of “domestic abuse”.

The idea is that they will be able to say this special word or phrase during a trip to the chemist, thereby alerting authorities of their situation.

The notion arose during discussions about the planned new domestic abuse law which is now being drawn up in Stormont.

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The new law aims to criminalise non-violent behaviour within close relationships.

It would make the specific offence of emotional abuse illegal - as opposed to physical abuse or threats, which are already criminal (see below).

Speaking to the Justice Committee at Stormont on Thursday, Justice Minister Naomi Long spoke about the effects the lockdown could be having for people subject to “domestic abuse”, telling MLAs: “We forget sometimes that we talk about lockdown increasing the risk of domestic abuse and violence, but for some people who are subjected to coercive control, they’re in lockdown almost permanently and actually leaving the home can be incredibly difficult.”

On the subject of the codeword scheme, she said: “They have a really good scheme, I think it’s in Spain, where if people ask for – I’m not going to try the Spanish – ‘mask 19’ when they go into the pharmacy, it’s a code to say they are at risk of domestic abuse of violence.

“They then take a seat and the pharmacist will deal with that and have a protocol to go through to ensure that person gets help and assistance so it’s seen as a safe place to go.

“We raised it with the Department of Health who looked at that, and one of the concerns obviously they had was that the pressure on pharmacies is so huge at the moment.

“The reason it was pharmacies selected in Spain was they had a very strict lockdown where there were only a certain number of places you could go, of which pharmacies was one.”

Few other details were aired of how a scheme might work (for example, whether police would turn up to the pharmacy).

But she said the idea is “ in train and we’re actually looking at the potential of using that because it is something that even longer term might be quite useful”.

Co-incidentally, on Friday it was announced that chemist chain Boots will create “safe spaces” for people who feel they are domestically abused. It means anyone will be able to ask a pharmacist if they can use a consultation room, no questions asked.

WHAT DOES THE DOMESTIC ABUSE BILL SAY?:

The terms of the Domestic Abuse Bill as it presently stands will outlaw behaviour that is “controlling or coercive or amounts to psychological, emotional or financial abuse”.

Under the law, this abuse would be an offence even if there is no detectable harm arising from it.

Instead, it will be enough that it is a type of behaviour which a “reasonable person” would consider has the potential to cause harm.

To qualify as “domestic abuse” the behaviour must occur twice or more.

If it happens within earshot or in the presence of people aged under 18, this will be considered an aggravating factor.

The maximum sentence will be 14 years in prison.

In the Assembly this week, justice minister Naomi Long said: “Since I took up post in January, a number of survivors of domestic abuse have bravely shared their experience with me and urged me to act to ensure that psychologically, financially and emotionally harmful behaviour is criminalised.”

Whilst activist groups and many MLAs have hailed the new law, barrister-turned-politician Jim Allister dubbed it “a convoluted muddle” and “absurd” during an Assembly session on Tuesday.

In particular Mr Allister said it is “astounding” that no evidence of harm needs to be cited.

“Think about that,” said Mr Allister.

“A criminal offence, for which you can get 14 years in prison, can be committed whether or not the person against whom it is said to be committed actually suffers the physical or psychological harm that is the tell-tale sign of the abuse.”

Paul Givan, DUP chairman of the Justice Committee, said that the committee will consider the points he made when it further scrutinises the bill.

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