Last night, a groundbreaking bill was passed in the House of Commons to protect the lives of millions of domestic abuse victims around the UK. The Domestic Abuse bill, which was reintroduced back into Parliament on the 3rd March this year, has been described as a “once in a generation” opportunity to provide adequate support to victims, and go even further in punishing their perpetrators.
This has never been more important. According to the charity Refuge, almost one in three women aged 16-59 will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime. This is said to be on the rise during lockdown; in June, the UN described domestic abuse as a "shadow pandemic" alongside Covid-19.
For the first time, the bill will create a statutory definition of domestic abuse, emphasising that it’s not just physical; in many cases, it includes coercive or controlling behaviour and financial constraints. The bill will establish a domestic abuse commissioner and create a new domestic abuse protection notice and domestic abuse protection order; all vital steps in increasing protection for victims.
Under the new laws, subject to them being passed by the House of Lords, here’s what else will change for survivors of domestic abuse and their families:
Greater protection for children
Children are the forgotten victims of domestic abuse. In June, the NSPCC reported that calls to its helpline are up by a third since lockdown began, and urged the Government to strengthen support for children suffering from domestic violence.
The new bill proposes a series of measures that will keep children safe. After a campaign led by the NSPCC, the law will now explicitly recognise that children are victims of domestic abuse in their own right, rather than being seen as bystanders. For many campaigners, this is an important step to prevent further cycles of abuse and to recognise the psychological impact of domestic violence on children.
The bill will also place a duty on local authorities in England to provide support to victims of domestic abuse and their children in refuges and other safe accommodation. At present, there is no requirement to provide this; according to domestic abuse charity Refuge, 64 per cent of refuge referrals were declined last year due to lack of space.
Family courts will be changed, too. The bill aims to “overhaul” the ways in which family courts operate to stop the “unnecessary risk” women and children are put in by attending a hearing. Research by the Victoria Derbyshire programme found that within five years at least four children were killed by a parent with a known history of domestic abuse after a family court granted access.
To combat this, the bill includes a review the controversial “presumption of parental involvement” in care cases, which encourages a child to maintain relationships with both parents, unless involvement of a parent is deemed to put the child at risk. This can tilt access to children in favour of the abuser, and consequently puts children in danger.
Further protection for survivors in court
It’s not only children who are put at risk in family courts. For many women, coming face to face with their abuser can be an incredibly distressing experience.
The bill will amend the ways in which family courts operate, by including automatic entitlement to separate waiting rooms, entrances and screens in court for victims of domestic abuse. It will also provide more powers for judges in the form of "barring orders", which will prevent abusers repeatedly dragging ex-partners back to court. A survey by Women’s Aid in 2015 found that a quarter of women had been directly questioned by the perpetrator. The “sweeping reforms” also put an end to survivors of domestic abuse being cross-examined by, or having to cross-examine, their abusers in the family court.
End of the 'rough sex' defence
In June, the Government published a new clause in the domestic abuse bill to end the controversial 'rough sex defence.' Currently, the law states that if someone kills another person through sexual activity, they could be charged with manslaughter alone; to murder someone, there needs to have been an intention to kill that person, or to cause them grievous bodily harm (GBH). The amendment would rule out "consent for sexual gratification" as a defence for causing serious harm to a victim. Labour MP Harriet Harman has called the new amendment a "milestone" in ending violence against women.
Indeed, it’s a landmark moment for campaigners. The defence was highlighted in the high profile trial of 22-year-old Grace Millane, who was killed in New Zealand in 2018. Her killer said she died accidentally after asking to be strangled during sex and explicit details of her sex life were repeated in court. In fact, the campaign group We Can’t Consent To This identified that at least 60 British women have been killed in episodes of so-called "consensual" sexual violence since 1972, with at least 18 women dying in the last five years. The group says that 45 per cent of these cases ended in a "lesser charge of manslaughter, a lighter sentence or the death not being investigated as a crime at all".
Non-fatal strangulation to be made a separate offence
The Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ) has also called for MPs to include a new offence of “non-fatal strangulation” in the bill. Non-fatal strangulation is a known high-risk indicator in domestic abuse cases leading to homicide, but despite this, it's often charged as common assault if women report it to the police. This makes it equivalent to a slap, or blow, that leaves a bruise. Under the new clause, non-fatal strangulation would be distinguished as a separate offence, reflecting the severity of it as a form of assault.
This will offer greater protection for women who report crimes by violent partners. Cathy McIntosh, sister of Anne-Marie Nield, who was murdered by her partner, told the charity: "Anne-Marie had been strangled in the past by her partner, but the police didn't recognise that meant that she was more likely to be killed by him."
Harriet Wistrich, the director of the CWJ, said: “Offenders are getting away with little or no punishment for this terrifying and dangerous offence. Police and prosecutors are not taking this offending sufficiently seriously. A simple amendment to the domestic abuse bill, making non-fatal strangulation a specific serious offence, could provide a remedy and help reduce femicide.”
Recognition of financial abuse
Financial abuse is still a grey area of the law, partly because it is rarely done in isolation. In most cases, perpetrators reinforce financial abuse of women with other forms of sexual, emotional or psychological abuse. It can include using a partner’s credit cards without permission, gambling with family assets or limiting a partner’s access to money.
The bill will finally recognise economic abuse as a form of coercive control - a hugely important step forward for women around the UK. According to Surviving Economic Abuse, one in five of the UK population has experienced economic abuse from a current or former partner, and 95 per cent of victim-survivors of domestic abuse will experience economic abuse. By including financial abuse within the statutory definition of domestic abuse helps raise awareness around the issue, and create a framework from within which organisations can respond.
Recognition of tech abuse
Abuse through technology is on the rise. Research by Refuge revealed that three in four domestic abuse victims have been exposed to “controlling, humiliating or monitoring” behaviour by their former partners using technology. Under the new bill, ‘tech abuse’ will fall under the legal definition of domestic abuse, making it illegal to use smart technology, such as smart locks or cameras, to spy, control or abuse a partner or ex-partner.