Today the government has launched its “landmark” draft Domestic Abuse Bill. The document draws on evidence from an open consultation in 2017, which received more than 3,000 submissions and discussions, with more than 1,000 people in England and Wales including survivors and practitioners working with those affected by domestic violence.
Until now there has been no single dedicated law or policy concerning domestic violence and abuse, although there have been several important developments over the past decade. An updated cross-party definition of domestic violence and abuse was established in 2013, and domestic violence and abuse has featured heavily in the Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy. Moreover, specific types of abuse have received increased attention, including coercive control which was made a standalone offence in 2015. New sentencing guidelines were released in 2018 recognising the seriousness of domestic violence-related offences, which are rarely isolated incidents.
Despite these important developments, the lack of a unified policy and legal framework for defining, identifying and responding to domestic violence has hindered progress. The existing law that might be used in domestic violence cases is spread across various statutes. For example, violent offences of assault causing actual bodily harm or the more serious offence of grievous bodily harm are contained in the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and are not specific to domestic violence. In contrast, the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, although not limited to domestic violence, introduced specific “special measures” for victims of domestic violence before and during criminal trials.
Reported levels of domestic violence have continued to rise over the past six years. In 2013 it was estimated around 1.8 million people (of which 1.2 million were women) 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) 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).
Reviews of frontline practice have revealed a myriad of problems with responses to domestic violence. For example, the Criminal Justice Inspectorates conducted an inspection of policing domestic violence and found police were under-recording domestic violence offences. Similarly, over the past year there has been increasing awareness of the punitive effects of cuts to legal aid for family cases, which has resulted in many alleged perpetrators of abuse acting as their own lawyers and, as a result, cross-examining victims during court proceedings.
It is therefore no surprise that this bill has been eagerly, if cautiously, anticipated. There have been significant delays in the publishing of this first draft. The bill was originally promised in the 2017 Conservative manifesto and it has been seven months since the consultation closed. These delays are perhaps not surprising given the volume of responses and ongoing constitutional issues dominating government business, however there has been widespread criticism that these delays reflect a failure of government to take domestic violence seriously.
The draft bill released today covers five key areas and has a number of strengths. First, it proposes a statutory definition of domestic abuse, expanding on the existing cross-party definition by broadening the scope of behaviours – by including financial abuse, for example – and relationships to include family members and those who are not cohabiting. These are particularly promising, as research indicates economic violence is prevalent and abuse by family members other than partners is particularly high among certain groups (for example older people) and in certain contexts (such as honour-based violence).
Second, it also proposes to improve criminal justice, council and frontline service provisions for survivors, giving them increased protection through the presumption of special measures during trial, removing the ability for perpetrators to cross-examine victims in family courts, and widening the protection orders police can impose to protect victims following a report of domestic violence. Moreover, one of the controversial proposals in the bill extends the use of polygraph tests to domestic violence perpetrators (currently reserved for sex offenders) who serve custodial sentences longer than 12 months. These tests would be used as part of the licence conditions perpetrators are subject to following release, and would allow probation officers to more accurately examine whether offenders are adhering to their licence conditions.
Importantly, the bill also proposes to make legal amendments which will allow the Istanbul Convention to be ratified. The UK has been a signatory to the convention but has failed to ratify this because our existing laws do not allow us to prosecute offences committed abroad by a UK national or a person habitually resident in the UK. The bill promises to make these changes, providing additional protection for victims of violence and extra powers to hold perpetrators to account.
However, the bill has already faced criticism for not going far enough. For example, the extension of special measures to all victims in criminal courts are not mirrored in the family courts. Furthermore, the additional conditions for perpetrators released on licence are limited to those serving sentences of at least 12 months. This means a significant proportion of violent offenders will not be subject to these additional measures, as the majority of domestic violence cases do not get to court and, for those that do the majority are dealt with in the magistrates courts which have limited sentencing powers (maximum of six months for a single offence or 12 months for two or more offences).
Significantly, while these proposals are welcomed, there is widespread concern about the funding to support survivors of violence and abuse. Frontline domestic violence services have seen significant cuts since the economic crash, and without proper funding and adequate resources many of the grand ambitions of the bill will not be realised.
This bill offers the opportunity to get it right for victims, replacing the existing piecemeal and fragmented legislation and policies and improving both prevention efforts and responses to domestic violence. However, there is a risk that it will become a missed opportunity if the government does not go further in their efforts to protect victims and ensure there are adequate, properly funded services to enforce the provisions of this bill and hold perpetrators to account.
Hannah Bows, Researcher (Sexual Violence and Violence against Women), Durham University
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