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Minister committed to including deaths by suicide in domestic homicide reviews

Move will bring Northern Ireland in line with UK counterparts where suicides in domestic abuse situations already included

A specialist consultant in domestic violence awareness has welcomed a commitment from the Minister for Justice, Naomi Long, to bring Northern Ireland Domestic Homicide Reviews (DHRs) in line with United Kingdom counterparts by including deaths by suicide in domestic abuse situations within the review scope.

After strong representations to amend the scope, confirmation of the move came from the Department of Justice, with a spokesperson stating: “The Minister is committed to extending the DHR process to include suicides resulting from domestic abuse.

“Once a review of the current process has completed, we will be able to provide an estimated timescale for the inclusion of domestic abuse-related suicides.”

It’s a huge change from the position a year ago when the same questions were asked, and while deaths by suicide had been considered, there was no indication of inclusion.

With a Minister now in place, the position is much more positive.

Nuala Lappin, who previously worked as a specialist PSNI Domestic Violence Officer, and who has witnessed significant differences in how such cases are handled across a broad spectrum of issues, said there must be a uniform approach as victims are not being afforded equal treatment, and that, in turn, could be letting perpetrators go unnoticed.

She said: “Whether a victim has been killed in a domestic attack or taken their own life as a result of abuse, there must be parity across all.

“The entire mindset on this abhorrent and often secretive offending must change, because statistics show more and more deaths occurring in these behind-closed-doors situations.

“With Northern Ireland currently running equal with Romania for the highest number of domestic deaths in Europe, every action available must be utilised.

“That frightening figure suggests it’s no coincidence Northern Ireland has reached the shocking levels it has, with the lack of legislation and will to support real and sustained change.

“Regrettably, there will be domestic deaths which in many instances could well be preventable. Murders and actions which lead to death at the hands of a domestic perpetrator are investigated as such, although even that at times has been challenging.

“Yet the victim, who simply cannot take any more and ends their life by suicide, is simply swept aside as if of no material value. No questions why. No probe into potential reasons.

“Realistically, the perpetrator aware of the story behind-closed-doors is not going to push for answers.

“If DHRs are – as stated in the criteria – designed to establish if lessons can be learned, then surely suicides in domestic abuse settings are equally important and should be scrutinised accordingly.

“Absent that, the cycle of toxic secrets simply continues. That’s simply not good enough.

“I therefore wholeheartedly welcome the Minister’s commitment and while the real wish for all right-thinking people is to prevent domestic abuse, victims cannot be denied a voice whatever the circumstances, and that must be on an equal footing.”

DHRs were first introduced in England and Wales in 2011, followed nine years later by Northern Ireland in December, 2020.

During that time, United Kingdom counterparts progressed the scope of DHRs, and in 2016 included deaths by suicide in a domestic situation.

Northern Ireland, by that stage, still had not introduced the initial legislation, and it would be a further four years before this took place.

In Northern Ireland a DHR can only be commissioned when it may result in identifying lessons being learned and when the following circumstances are present:

– The death took place on or after the date that the legislation was commenced (December 10, 2020)
– The deceased person was aged 16 or over

In addition, the death has or appears to have resulted from violence, abuse or neglect, which has been caused by one of the following:

– A person to whom the victim was related
– A person with whom they had been in an intimate personal relationship
– A member of the same household
– When such a death takes place, the PSNI send a notification for the DHR Senior Oversight Forum to consider.

However, any agency or third party can refer a homicide to the forum if it meets the qualifying criteria, and it is considered important lessons for inter-agency working may be learned.

It is anticipated, the majority of referrals, if not all, would come from police.

To date, it remains under the original criteria, specifically excluding deaths by suicide, therefore amounting to detrimental differentiation between Northern Ireland and United Kingdom counterparts – a fact apparently unknown to the Department of Justice.

Previously, the Department was asked why DHRs in Northern Ireland differ from the England and Wales criteria, and if this was currently under review to align.

A spokesperson however responded stating: “The criteria for commencing a DHR is the same in both jurisdictions.”

It was pointed out this was incorrect, as England and Wales include suicides within DHR criteria, whereas Northern Ireland specifically excludes this.

The Department spokesperson said: “Suicide domestic abuse-related deaths were brought into the scope of England and Wales in 2016.

“Such deaths were not reviewable prior to 2016, although were previously considered by the Home Office.

“Northern Ireland introduced DHRs in December, 2020, with a commitment to later consider domestic-abuse related deaths by suicide.”

While in March, 2023, the Department said the matter was being kept under review, there were no plans for inclusion.

That position has now changed with the Minister’s commitment.

Meanwhile, the PSNI confirmed 16 DHRs have been commissioned since the process started in 2020.

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