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Domestic abuse: a general overview

by Teelan & Silwal

What is domestic abuse?

The term “domestic abuse” can be defined as an act or series of acts committed by a person, 16 years or older, against their partner/spouse or former partner/spouse or close family member and includes:

  1. Behaviour which is controlling, coercive or threatening;
  2. Abuse, whether physical, emotional, psychological, financial or sexual;
  3. Violence;
  4. Honour-based abuse, female genital mutilation and forced marriage.

Whilst domestic abuse is commonly perceived as being a crime against women, the true picture is very different. In 2018/19, for example, one third of reported cases were of domestic abuse against men (786,000 cases with many more going unreported). In the same period, there were 1.6 million reported cases of domestic abuse perpetrated against women.

In this article, we aim to explore the current legal position in relation to domestic abuse in England and Wales, starting with the upcoming Domestic Abuse Bill 2019-21 (“the Bill”) and the impact that lockdown has had and may continue to have in these uncertain times.

The law on domestic abuse in England and Wales is in the process of being overhauled and this is a very welcome and much-needed change. The Domestic Abuse Bill 2019-21 was introduced to the House of Commons and completed this first stage in July 2020. The Bill aims to create a new way to tackle domestic abuse in England and Wales, starting with redefining the the term “domestic abuse” to officially include “coercive, controlling and economic abuse”, which are all overlooked by the current law. The Bill also seeks to recognise parental alienation as a form of abuse.

The Bill is currently going through the House of Lords and (as at 27 January 2021) is at the Committee Stage. It is unclear, however, how long it will take to go through Parliament because of the impact of the Coronavirus. Ironically, services and support for domestic abuse survivors are required all the more as the number of those suffering or at risk is increasing exponentially as a result of the lockdown and now the restrictions imposed as a result of the Coronavirus.

Lockdown

On 7 April 2020, Refuge reported a 120% increase in calls (up from the previous day) from people who were suffering from domestic abuse during the lockdown. The rise in cases has been echoed in other countries as well and the UN Secretary-General recently warned that there has been a rise in domestic abuse cases in the wake of the current climate.

Funding

Despite the amount pledged by the Government, local councils are still struggling to support domestic abuse survivors because of a reduction in funding. In its 2020 report, Women’s Aid found that 64% of refuge referrals in 2019 were refused and the number of bed spaces is 30% less than that recommended by the Council of Europe. Unquestionably, more funding is needed.

The numbers

Domestic abuse is an abhorrent crime, which takes on so many forms and can affect so many women and men in different ways. It is one of the most underreported crimes in the UK, alongside rape. This might be because very few people are charged or convicted. There is also the fear of being found out by the perpetrator, or perhaps the survivor has a misplaced sense of loyalty. On the other hand, men tend not to report domestic abuse against them for fear of the stigma surrounding the issue.

According to a publication by the Crown Prosecution Service (“the CPS”), the number of pre-charge receipts (people referred by the Police to the CPS for prosecution) for domestic abuse offences fell from 98,470 in 2018/2019 to 82,010 in April 2020. Completed prosecutions of alleged perpetrators also fell from 78,624 to 65,285. The CPS stated that the drop in prosecutions might be down to the increased complexity in offences committed. There are also other issues such as lack of sufficient evidence to charge or prosecute the alleged abusers. Such a downward trend highlights ongoing problems in the Criminal Justice System, which is devastating for a huge number of survivors. This further feeds mistrust towards the Police, fuelling the perception that justice will not be done. The mere fact that few domestic abuse survivors can be offered a bed in a refuge worsens the situation. This often leads survivors to return home to an abusive partner.

The family home

Abuse is commonplace in a marital/couple’s context, and this is a problem that needs to be addressed. As the upcoming Domestic Abuse Bill 2019-21 seeks to clarify, such abuse can be physical, psychological, emotional, financial, coercive, sexual and/or controlling.

Sometimes the partner who works can be abusive from a financial/economic point of view. Problems that lead to violence or abuse can arise from differing circumstances, however. With this in mind, domestic abuse should be viewed as a public health issue.

Witnessing abuse between the adults in their lives will almost certainly have a profound impact on children. They may end up finding themselves in violent or abusive relationships later in life.

Evidence/information from the Royal College of Psychiatrists suggests that older boys may act more aggressively and disobediently while older girls may become more withdrawn or choose abusive partners. Younger children can also become very anxious and children of any age can develop PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). In addition, there is also the potential to repeat the cycle of abuse or violence in later life, although some children try very hard to not make the same mistakes as their parents.

When abuse starts, it is prudent for people to leave if it is practical to do so, but families are complicated and a decision to stay in such a relationship is often not taken lightly. The sad thing is that the damage is often much harder to reverse the longer the survivors wait to take action.

Conclusion

The pandemic has brought an increase in cases of domestic abuse and this is why support to survivors is needed now more than ever. It was encouraging, however, to see the new Domestic Abuse Bill making its way through Parliament, despite the lockdown. Equally encouraging are the pledges of fresh funding from the Government; however, in truth, the cause requires a far greater sum and a more comprehensive approach, particularly after a large reduction of frontline services and resources over the last 10 years. Still, efforts to increase awareness, support and money from different sources are most welcome and will ultimately help reduce the current number of cases of domestic abuse, which is far too high.

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