The Domestic Abuse Bill has received Royal Assent. This means that some significant improvements to the way in which domestic abuse should be dealt with, and its victims protected, are now firmly set out in law.
As a Family Law solicitor, this is something I’m glad to see come to fruition. For too long, violence and control within families has been inadequately positioned in the criminal, civil and family justice systems. More has needed to be done to see domestic abuse for what it is.
So it’s pleasing to see that a key change in the law is a new definition of domestic abuse. Often thought of as physical violence against a partner, domestic abuse is far broader and can include emotional, controlling or coercive, and economic abuse. It can be a wife constantly criticising and belittling her husband. It can be a husband isolating his wife from friends and family. Many of the behaviours that amount to domestic abuse are not always easily recognised as such; victims don’t see their partner’s treatment of them as abuse. So, a new legal definition of domestic abuse should go some way towards improving awareness and encouraging victims – and even perpetrators – to seek help.
Alongside that change are others that the government says will better protect the millions of people who experience domestic abuse, and strengthen measures to tackle the perpetrators. These include:
- A duty on local authorities in England to provide accommodation-based support to domestic abuse victims and their children in refuges and other safe accommodation.
- Giving victims better access to measures in the courts to help them give evidence.
- Preventing perpetrators being able to cross-examine victims in the civil and family courts.
- Explicitly recognising children as victims if they are exposed to domestic abuse.
- Extending the offence of ‘controlling or coercive behaviour’ to cover post-separation abuse.
- Extending the ‘revenge porn’ offence to cover threats to disclose private sexual photos and films.
- A new offence of non-fatal strangulation or suffocation.
- Enabling domestic abuse offenders to be polygraph tested as a condition of their licence after their release from custody.
- Placing ‘Clare’s law’ (allowing disclosure of a partner’s history of violence) on a statutory footing.
These are just some of the provisions, all of which I welcome as part of the drive to reduce the terrible effects that domestic abuse has on individuals and their families. Domestic abuse is said to account for more than 10% of all offences recorded by police, and there are reckoned to be 2.3 million victims of domestic abuse each year. My perception is that the Covid pandemic will only have increased those figures, as pressures on home life have built up and opportunities to escape abuse may have been limited. Domestic abuse is something that has certainly become far more prevalent since last March in my day-to-day work with clients.
So, what next? I’m hopeful that this spotlight on domestic abuse, and some clear routes to prevention and protection, will make for a brighter future for victims and potential victims. But I also know that this isn’t a quick fix. That’s why my door is always open to people who are, or who think they may be, being abused. It’s why I’ll always listen. And it’s why I’ll always do whatever I can to help make them safe.