It’s the day many women have been waiting for: the Government’s much delayed domestic abuse bill has cleared its final hurdle in the House of Commons, changing the landscape for victims. It’s a landmark moment because domestic abuse is one of this country’s most common crimes, yet the law in this area has been patchy and ineffective for years.
When MPs voted to give the bill its third reading, they created a statutory definition of domestic abuse for the very first time. There are around 2.4m victims each year, according to the Government’s own figures, and more than one in ten crimes recorded by the police is abuse-related. Two-thirds of the victims are female, they’re more likely than men to suffer repeat offences, and their injuries tend to be more serious.
The new definition has been welcomed because it’s so comprehensive, recognising emotional, psychological and economic abuse – forcing a woman to have her wages paid into her partner’s band account, for instance – as well as physical. The Government says it’s intended both to raise public awareness of the ‘devastating’ impact of the offence and to improve the way it’s handled by the criminal justice system.
The bill has been in the works for a long time, first proposed by Theresa May when she was Prime Minister back in 2018. The bill was delayed by two general elections and the prorogation of Parliament, and it’s been amended in response to lobbying by individual MPs and women’s organisations.
One of the most successful campaigns has been to outlaw the so-called ‘rough sex’ defence, which defendants have used to blame women for serious injuries sustained during sex – and even their own deaths. A group called We Can’t Consent To This highlighted cases such as that of Natalie Connolly, 26, whose partner John Broadhurst left her to die at the foot of the stairs of the home they shared near Stourbridge in December 2016.
Broadhurst was charged with murder but claimed Ms Connolly’s horrific injuries were caused during consensual ‘rough sex’. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter halfway through his trial and was sentenced to just three years and eight months in prison. A Conservative MP, Mark Garnier, argued that the case highlighted ‘a rising menace of justice game-playing by killers and abusers’. A similar strategy was used unsuccessfully by the man convicted last November of murdering the British backpacker, 22-year-old Grace Millane, in New Zealand.
Garnier campaigned on the issue with the Labour MP Harriet Harman, persuading the Government to add a new clause to the domestic abuse bill. It bans ‘consent for sexual gratification’ as a defence for causing serious harm or murder in England and Wales, putting an end to a new version of the ‘she asked for it’ ploy familiar from rape trials.
The new law should improve the outcome for victims of abuse in other ways as well. Until now many vital services have been non-statutory, meaning that local authorities don’t have a legal obligation to provide them, but the legislation places a duty on councils to provide refuges for victims and their children. It creates new domestic abuse protection orders, and breaching them will be a criminal offence - unlike existing orders which have been criticised for lack of teeth. Other protections include a ban on abusers cross-examining their victims in family courts in England and Wales.
There’s no doubt these measures address acknowledged failures in the justice system, but there are several areas where questions remain. The Government estimates the cost of the measures in the bill as somewhere between £128m and £146m each year in England and Wales, and argues that the benefits will outweigh the costs.
That feels like a considerable under-estimate, given that services for victims have been drastically affected by cuts to local authority budgets over the last decade. Two-thirds of referrals to refuges were turned away in 2018-19, and the charity Women’s Aid estimates the cost of providing a safe and sustainable network of women’s services at £393m per year.
The other gap in the legislation is support for migrant women, whose insecure immigration status makes them even more vulnerable to abuse. ‘The argument the Government uses is that these women should go home – and have their whole lives taken away by their abuser,’ says the shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding, Jess Phillips. She proposed an amendment that would have provided support for migrant women with no recourse to public funds who meet a legal aid test – but it wasn’t passed.
It’s a disturbing omission in what is in other ways an exemplary piece of legislation. How local authorities will pay for a big increase in refuge provision remains to be seen, especially now their budgets have been stretched even further by the Covid-19 pandemic. But there’s no doubt that Monday’s events in Parliament are a game-changer for abused women. If Theresa May is looking for a legacy from the backbenches, she may feel it lies in belated official recognition of the shattering impact of domestic abuse.