The UK’s legal approach to domestic abuse, comparisons to other jurisdiction

The UK’s legal approach to domestic abuse, comparisons to other jurisdiction

In June 2021, the HM Inspectorate of Constabulary published its review of policing domestic abuse during the pandemic.  While the review stated the UK had not suffered an increase in reports of domestic violence that had been experienced by other European nations, referrals to charities and domestic abuse organisations had increased, and continued. 

In March 2020, an estimated 2.3 million adults experienced domestic abuse (1.6 million women and 757,000 men).   With the lockdown restrictions, various charities working with victims of domestic abuse warned against the impact of victims remaining in homes they shared with their abuser.

The HM Constabulary review came after the introduction of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021.  Victoria Atkins MP (Minster for Safeguarding) described the legislation as a “landmark Bill” that would “help transform the response to domestic abuse, helping to prevent offending, protect victims and ensure they have the support they need.”   The Act:

  • Created a legal definition of domestic abuse, and highlighted that this is not just physical violence, but also emotional, controlling or coercive, and economic abuse.
  • Created a new Domestic Abuse Protection Notice and Domestic Abuse Protection Order
  • Placed a duty on local authorities to provide accommodation and support to victims of domestic abuse and their children
  • Prevented perpetrators of domestic abuse from cross-examining their victims in person in the civil and family courts.
  • Clarified that the family court could prevent a perpetrator from pursuing family proceedings that could cause further harm to their victims
  • The definition of controlling or coercive behaviour was extended to cover abuse that took place after separation.
  • It widened the offence of disclosing private sexual photographs and films (commonly known as the “revenge porn” offence) to cover any threat of doing so.

The aim was to bring together the various agencies, legal professionals, and court systems that victims of domestic abuse encounter for help.  It provided important structure to the way that the police, local authorities, health professionals, and others can act to support and protect a victim of domestic abuse.  The recognition that domestic abuse does not simply come in the form of physical assault was a major legal development.  It addressed problems that, previously, the police recorded offences of domestic abuse under broader terms of assault, with the ensuing difficulties that came with pursuing convictions under laws that were not specifically targeted at domestic situations.

The UK government was arguably taking a proactive approach to protecting victims of abuse that was in stark contrast to some European countries.   In 2017 Russia decriminalised domestic battery.  If the victim’s injuries were not severe enough to require hospital treatment then the sanction would be limited to a fine.

The approach in the UK can be seen as a step towards adopting a multi-agency approach to supporting victims of domestic abuse, similar to that adopted in Spain,  where victims have access to “gender violence courts”.  The Spanish definition of “gender violence”  focuses on physical or psychological violence, including sexual violence, threats and coercion.  These gender violence courts work with specialist units of social workers, pathologists and psychologists who prepare assessments for the judge so that, in turn, the judge can make the appropriate decisions about criminal or civil proceedings, and what protection the victim should receive.

This development of domestic abuse laws represents a significant cultural and legal leap forward in addressing a national issue that impacts on the lives of thousands of people on a daily basis.   The challenge to family law professionals will be using the tools now provided in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, and in existing legislation, to their fullest when advising victims of abuse.  However, it is still reactive legislation.  Governments need to grapple with prevention, but without legislative  intervention domestic abuse statistics seem likely to rise.

Simon Donald is a partner in the family team at law firm Cripps Pemberton Greenish

Today's Family Lawyer

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