On 21 January 2019 the government published its draft Domestic Abuse Bill. A bill which was part of the Conservative Party’s 2017 manifesto. A bill eagerly but cautiously anticipated by professionals with the hope that it will offer the opportunity to get it right for victims replacing the existing piecemeal and fragmented legislation.
It comes as it is revealed in 2016 to 2017 domestic abuse issues cost the country £66 billion a year. According to the Home Office research the vast majority of this cost (£47 billion)1 was a result of the physical and emotional harm of domestic abuse, however it also includes other factors such as cost to health services (£2.3 billion), police (£1.3 billion) and victim services (£724 million).
To put this bill into context and understand the landmark nature of the bill, reported levels of domestic violence have continued to rise over the past six years. According to Office for National Statistics, in 2013 it was estimated around 1.8 million people (of which 1.2 million were women)2 experienced some form of domestic violence or abuse in the previous year, but the most recent data indicates this has increased to 2 million people (1.3 million women, 695,000 men) 3 in the past year. Moreover, the number of women killed by men has remained broadly static over the last decade, with an average of two women killed every week by a man (usually a partner, ex-partner or family member)4.
The Bill covers five key areas and has a number of strengths:
- It introduces the first ever statutory government definition of domestic abuse to specifically include economic abuse and controlling and manipulative non-physical abuse - this will enable everyone, including victims themselves, to understand what constitutes abuse and will encourage more victims to come forward.
- Establishes a Domestic Abuse Commissioner to drive the response to domestic abuse issues.
- Introduces new Domestic Abuse Protection Notices and Domestic Abuse Protection Orders (DAPO’s) to further protect victims and place restrictions on the actions of offenders to be made and enforced by the family courts where the application is not brought by the police.
- Prohibits the cross-examination of victims by their abusers as litigants in person in the family courts and in such cases the family court has the power to appoint a legal representative to conduct the cross-examination on the person's behalf. This part also gives domestic abuse victims automatic eligibility for special measures in the criminal courts.
- Domestic abuse offenders to be subject to polygraph testing as a condition of their licence. This part also deals with domestic violence disclosure scheme and local authorities being required to grant a new secure tenancy to a social tenant when that tenancy is being granted following domestic abuse (and the person previously had/has a secure lifetime or assured tenancy).
However, the bill has already faced criticism for not going far enough. Some campaigners say the bill will leave some women at risk. Amnesty International UK and a host of other charities and organisations have warned the legislation fails to offer migrant women the protections they need. “Migrant women in abusive relationships are currently trapped and further victimised by their immigration status - excluded from financial support which often makes them reliant on their abuser and threatened with deportation should they seek support from the police.”
Kate Allen, director of Amnesty UK.
As a solicitor, often representing victims of all degrees of domestic abuse, I find it arbitrary that the extension of special measures to all victims in criminal courts are not mirrored in the family courts. These measures include separate waiting rooms, different entry and exit times, screens to divide the courtroom, and facilities to give evidence via video. The same provisions that will be offered in the criminal courts must be offered to the family courts where often solicitors are dealing with clients facing a multitude of issues often linked with domestic abuse such as occupation orders, divorce, finance, issues with children in respect of contact and residence disputes.
Although the draft bill puts a greater focus on children, the diverse identities of victims and on interventions for perpetrators of domestic abuse, the government has yet to introduce measures to challenge the “contact at all costs” approach by some judges, which often puts children in danger. According to a 2017 report by Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) and Women’s Aid, unsupervised contact was ordered at the final hearing in almost two in five cases where there was an allegation of domestic abuse. In the most extreme cases, contact decisions threatened domestic violence survivors and their children’s human right to life when contact orders placed them in unsafe proximity to abusive ex-partners or confidential information about their address or location was disclosed during the court process.
The changes proposed in the draft bill suggest that the government is listening to domestic abuse victims, advocates and experts. The key will be whether or not these proposals can be sufficiently and effectively implemented. Until such time it will remain a draft bill that is eagerly but cautiously anticipated.
Author and Child Care & Family Law solicitor Genet Amare
is based in the Duncan Lewis Shepherd’s Bush office. Her caseload mainly consists of Public Law children matters, involving multiple complex issues including domestic violence, drug and alcohol misuse, non-accidental injuries, physical and sexual abuse and mental health issues. Further, she has the added dimension of having completed a seat in Mental Health and has a passion for assisting vulnerable clients and legally aided clients. She has considerable experience in representing parents and other family members in care proceedings as well as dealing with Wardship matters.
For more information please contact Genet directly by calling 020 701 47350 or by emailing GenetA@Duncanlewis.com.