Spike in family court cases and domestic abuse put down to Covid-19
A 25 per cent rise in family cases in the courts and a 30 per cent spike in domestic abuse protection orders over the last year were probably sparked by the Covid pandemic, MPs have been told.
Kathy Lynn Simmons, the Attorney-General, said there had also been a 19 per cent jump in juvenile criminal cases, also likely attributable to the “monumental financial, emotional and societal stresses caused by the pandemic”.
Ms Simmons, speaking in the House of Assembly last Friday during the Budget debate, said that social problems had been worsened by “hardship, lack of residential accommodation and varied tensions in the community”.
She added: “The global pandemic only added to the myriad complexities that our clients lived with and have to function within.
“Some pervasive issues include, but are not limited to, unemployment, mental health issues, lack of housing, issues with substances, parenting challenges, childhood and adult trauma, anger issues, gang affiliation, ineffective role models, educational deficiencies and deficits as well as unsatisfactory leisure activities.
“While there has been a thrust to identify root causes there is no definitive research in this regard.”
A “steep increase” in the number of people who asked for time to pay traffic fines was also put down to the economic crisis caused by Covid-19.
MPs heard the The Department of Court Services’ budget was reduced by 2 per cent to $4.6m.
The courts took in $1.58 million in fines last year, down from $2.92 in 2019.
Ms Simmons praised the court system, which “ensured the wheels of justice kept revolving by hearing cases remotely during shelter in place”.
She said: “In essence, the courts never ceased operations during this period.”
Ms Simmons added that requests for video conferencing “increased dramatically in 2020”, and the trend was expected to continue in this financial year.
She also revealed five people were accepted into the witness protection programme in the last financial year, with one case still under consideration.
The average length of time spent in the programme is three years.
Ms Simmons said that there were 23 people in the criminal justice system who were diagnosed with treatable mental health issues.
She added that 70 per cent of them were homeless or in “a precarious housing situation“.
Ms Simmons said: “One significant challenge is the inability for clients to access the relevant residential treatment services required.
“Significant activities for the upcoming fiscal year include exploring residential and dual diagnosis options for clients with mental health challenges.
“This is a dire need as we will ultimately be unsuccessful if we can not meet the basic needs of an individual.
“Adequate residential and mental health treatment options remain a priority.
“We continue working collectively with other ministries to towards this end in addition to enhancing skills building.”
Ms Simmons said the Department of Public Prosecutions has been through “year of change”.
She highlighted that the department was unable to hold jury trials for seven months, which left the department with 42 cases to be tried at the start of January.
The Department of National Drug Control budget decreased by 3 per cent on last year to $4,292,000.
The Community Development section was allocated $271,000, up 1 per cent on last year.
This included funding a cannabis public education campaign after legislation to licence cannabis production was rejected by the Senate earlier this month.
The Research and Policy Development section also got an increase – 2 per cent up on last year to $301,000 – part of which was allocated to work related to the proposed changes in the law on cannabis.