It’s time to change the narrative
Domestic Abuse: what does that mean? For the estimated 2.3 million adults aged 16-74, who experienced domestic abuse between March 2019 and March 2020, it can mean a vast array of the most appalling violence and behaviour inflicted upon them. For each and every victim, it may mean something unique, a different form of abuse with varying and devastating consequences. Of those 2.3 million adults affected, 1.6 million were women and 757,000 were men. Domestic abuse offences recorded by the Police make up more than 1 in 10 of all offences recorded thus. The statistics make for very sobering reading, but for the victims and survivors who are so much more than a statistic, the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 is a long overdue piece of legislation that must now help to tackle the abhorrent abuse suffered by so many people.
The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 (“the Act”) came into force on 29 April 2021. Many of the provisions of the Act are now effective but there are a number of provisions that will not become effective until various points throughout 2022 and indeed 2023. The aim of the Act is to provide victims and survivors with the protection and vital support they need and to strengthen measures to deal with the perpetrators of this abuse.
With the introduction of the Act we now have, for the first time, a statutory definition of domestic abuse. Domestic abuse is not just physical or sexual abuse, but also includes violent or threatening behaviour, psychological or emotional abuse, controlling or coercive behaviour (which includes post separation abuse of this nature) and economic abuse. A new offence of non-fatal strangulation has been created and the law will be clarified to deter cases of “rough sex gone wrong”. Further, the threat to disclose intimate photographs or films, with the intention to cause distress, has also been included.
One in five children lives with domestic abuse. That’s potentially 6 children affected by domestic abuse in every classroom. With effect from January 2022, children will, for the first time, be included as victims of domestic abuse in their own right, if they see, hear or experience the effects of domestic abuse. In addition, current legislation preventing any further court applications being issued in respect of a child of the family, will be extended. This should prevent a perpetrator from issuing vexatious applications, which could cause harm to the child.
A recent report prepared by SafeLives on behalf of the Domestic Abuse Commission entitled “Understanding Court Support for Victims of Domestic Abuse” highlighted that going through the court system is re-traumatising victims, as they must give evidence.
One of the aims of the Act is to protect victims. So, from spring 2022, it will no longer be possible for abusers to directly cross examine their victims, in either family or civil proceedings. In addition, a statutory presumption has been created, thereby ensuring victims have greater access to special measures. This should help to protect them and reduce any intimidation they feel while giving evidence in court. Such provisions may include the victim providing evidence by video link or ensuring that screens are used in the court room, to shield the victim from the perpetrator.
New powers have also been created whereby Domestic Abuse Protection Notices and Domestic Abuse Protection Orders will also be implemented. These provisions will replace the current Domestic Violence Protection Notices and Domestic Violence Protection Orders.
The Police will be provided with the authority to issue Domestic Abuse Protection Notices, which will provide victims with immediate protection following a domestic abuse incident. This may include, for example, preventing perpetrators from contacting their victims, coming within a certain distance of the victim, being made to leave or being prohibited from entering a property.
Domestic Abuse Protection Orders will provide a longer term, more flexible, solution. The courts will be able to make orders imposing a requirement upon a perpetrator to do something. This may include prohibiting any particular behaviour or requiring the perpetrator to do something, for example by attending a behaviour change programme, drug/alcohol rehabilitation or mental health assessment. A perpetrator could also be fitted with electronic monitoring, to ensure that they are complying with the terms of the Domestic Abuse Protection Orders.
Both the Domestic Abuse Protection Notices and Domestic Abuse Protection Orders are currently being piloted in a number of areas across the UK, prior to the national roll out expected in 2023.
Nicole Jacobs was appointed the Domestic Abuse Commissioner (“DAC”) for England & Wales in September 2019 and, on 1 November 2021, the Act gave Nicole Jacobs some necessary powers to enable her to fulfil her role as DAC.
So, what can we expect from the DAC? At the heart of the role, Nicole Jacobs will provide public leadership on tackling domestic abuse, and to oversee and monitor the provision of services to victims, survivors, and their children in England and Wales. The Act gives the DAC powers to raise awareness and hold both agencies and government to account in tackling the national issue of domestic abuse, putting a duty on them to respond to any queries or recommendations from the DAC within 56 days. Hopefully, this will enable the DAC to drive forward change without delay, whilst also ensuring a consistent response to domestic abuse across the country and to make sure services are available to all, including BAME, LGBTQ+, and disabled victims and survivors, who often face some of the greatest barriers to receiving help.
By the end of 2021, Ms Jacobs is expected to publish her Strategic Plan. The Plan will set out her strategy for the next one to three years, and this will give a wider indication of what potential the role of the DAC can have.
Domestic abuse is an abhorrent crime. Significant work must continue to ensure that the voices and needs of victims and survivors are heard by everybody in order to tackle domestic abuse.