Domestic Abuse Bill passes at last
Domestic Abuse Bill passes at last
On the 29th of April the long-awaited Domestic Abuse Bill received the Royal Assent, and so passed into law. The Act, as it now is, is perhaps the most significant reform to the law on domestic abuse for the last twenty-five years.
And as we will see, the provisions of the Act are not just about new ways in which victims of abuse can seek the protection of the law. They are also about changing attitudes towards the scourge of domestic abuse, including raising awareness of and understanding of domestic abuse and its impact on victims, and strengthening the support for victims of abuse and their children.
Commenting upon the passing of the Act the Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland said:
“This landmark piece of legislation steps up the response to domestic abuse at every level – giving victims more support than ever before while ensuring perpetrators feel the full force of the law.”
So what new provisions does the Act contain? It actually covers a lot of ground, but the following are perhaps its most important provisions.
A definition of abuse
The Act includes the first statutory definition of domestic abuse. The definition includes not just physical abuse and threatening behaviour, but also controlling or coercive behaviour, economic abuse, and psychological, emotional or other abuse.
“Economic abuse” is defined as any behaviour that has a substantial adverse effect on the victim’s ability to acquire, use or maintain money or other property, or obtain goods or services.
New protections for victims
The Act introduces new Domestic Abuse Protection Notices and Domestic Abuse Protection Orders.
A Notice, which may be given by a senior police officer, prohibits the person to whom it is given from being abusive towards a person to whom they are personally connected. Anyone breaching the Notice may be arrested and taken before a magistrates’ court.
An order prevents a person from being abusive towards a person to whom they are personally connected, by prohibiting them from doing things described in the order, or requiring them to do things described in the order. The court may impose any requirement it considers necessary to protect the victim, including requiring the abuser to submit to electronic tagging. Breach of an order is a criminal offence.
Other new protections include making non-fatal strangulation a specific criminal offence, and widening ‘revenge porn’ laws to include threats to disclose intimate images with the intention to cause distress.
Domestic Abuse Commissioner
The Act establishes a ‘Domestic Abuse Commissioner’ “to provide public leadership on domestic abuse issues and play a key role in overseeing and monitoring the provision of domestic abuse services in England and Wales.”
The Commissioner is “tasked with encouraging good practice in preventing domestic abuse; identifying victims and survivors, and perpetrators of domestic abuse, as well as children affected by domestic abuse; and improving the protection and provision of support to people affected by domestic abuse.”
The first Commissioner, Nicole Jacobs, has already been appointed, and has begun her work.
Protecting victims in court
The Act includes new protections for victims of abuse in court, where they may have to face their abusers.
Alleged victims will no longer be cross-examined by their alleged abusers, who often cannot get legal representation due to the lack of legal aid. Instead, the court may appoint a legal representative to cross-examine the alleged victim, the fees of whom may be paid by the state.
Victims will also be given better access to special measures in the courtroom to help prevent intimidation, such as protective screens and giving evidence via video link.
Support for victims
Lastly, the Act places a duty on local authorities in England to provide support to victims of domestic abuse and their children in refuges and other safe accommodation, and provides that all eligible homeless victims of domestic abuse automatically have ‘priority need’ for homelessness assistance.
As Sandra Horley CBE, former Chief Executive of the domestic abuse charity Refuge commented:
“This much needed change in the law could mean an end to the postcode lottery of finding emergency accommodation and would ensure critical specialist services are on a much more sustainable financial footing.”
Obviously, it is critically important that victims fleeing abuse have somewhere safe to go. Until now, that depended upon the availability of local refuge services, which in turn depended upon how well those services were funded. Hopefully, this duty will ensure that victims can find the services they require, wherever they need them.
A strategic approach
The Act represents a strategic approach to the problem of domestic abuse, which provides support for victims at all stages. As Farah Nazeer, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid Federation of England, explained:
“The Domestic Abuse Bill has been long-awaited, and could not be more needed, following the impact of the pandemic on survivors and our national network of domestic abuse services.
“Thanks to the bravery of survivors in campaigning for change, we now have an act that will strengthen protection in the family courts, improve housing law in cases of domestic abuse, and require councils to fund support in safe accommodation.”