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BLOG: The new domestic abuse law is a much-improved piece of legislation that will save lives. But we can – and must – go further.

As the Domestic Abuse Bill finally receives Royal Assent, the Victims' Commissioner congratulates campaigners and the government in her latest blog.

29 April 2021

Today, the Domestic Abuse Bill formally became the Domestic Abuse Act as it received Royal Assent. Make no doubt, this is a huge milestone and no small feat.

It has taken an immense amount of work from victims, campaigners, charities and politicians to get to this point. To its credit, too, the government has listened, engaged and reflected. This is now a much-improved piece of legislation as a result and it introduces many reforms that will help victims and save lives.

Domestic abuse affects millions of people up and down the country. Victims and survivors can be subject to physical, emotional and financial abuse for years at a time and the long-term effects – including on children – can be devastating. So, it is vitally important to ensure survivors can escape to safety and access the support they need to cope and recover from abuse.

Domestic abuse has rightly risen up the political agenda during the past year. Lockdown has made it so much easier for perpetrators to tighten their grip on victims and we have seen sharp rises in domestic abuse reported by specialist organisations supporting victims of this heinous crime. The order to ‘Stay At Home’ during lockdowns was more than a temporary hardship for many – it was downright dangerous.

So, the need for legislation has never been more pressing.

The measures the Act will introduce are wide-ranging. Victims can expect greater protection and support and more perpetrators of abuse will be held to account.

Many of these measures were hard fought for by campaigners and members of the House of Lords.

In a huge win for victims, charities and campaigners, the government created a specific offence of non-fatal strangulation, punishable by up to five years in prison. Non-fatal strangulation is a domestic terror tactic and research shows that it is a clear indicator of extreme levels of coercive control and violence and those subject to strangulation have a seven-fold increase in the risk of death. This new offence will make a huge difference and lives will be saved.

Campaigners also fought for provisions to ban the so-called “rough sex defence” in court, which was so publicly exploited in the tragic case of Grace Millane in New Zealand. The Act will also extend the law against revenge pornography to cover the very threat of publication, a dreadful way that perpetrators use to oppress coercively controlled domestic victims and a change that has been hard fought for.

Importantly, the Act also recognises children as victims of domestic abuse in their own right. Children can be profoundly affected by domestic abuse in their childhood and the impacts are huge and far-reaching, as shown in my Sowing The Seeds report.

But while there are congratulations in order for campaigners and the government for reaching this milestone, the work remains far from over. There is still more to do to protect victims and survivors of domestic abuse and we must go further.

Many important amendments were dropped along the way as the Bill progressed to Royal Assent.

Presently, many migrant women domestic abuse victims cannot get any support – including a life-saving place in a refuge – because their immigration status means they cannot access public funds. Women are forced to remain in dangerous relationships because they have nowhere else to go and the immigration system is used as a tool by abusers to further control their victims, who fear that if they report to the police then they risk detention or deportation.

It was very disappointing that we did not see the necessary concessions from the government on this.

But we have seen that the government will engage and compromise and we now have some high-profile opportunities before us to push for further change on this and other fallen amendments. I hope that the government continues to engage with campaigners on these crucial issues.

These legislative vehicles include the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill and the expected Victims Law legislation in the summer. 

A number of amendments have been suggested to the draft PCSC Bill to ensure there is far-reaching and swifter protection for victims and I will be working with the sector to continue to push for better support for all victims, including those who are most marginalised and face the greatest barriers to accessing support.

Passing the Domestic Abuse Act is a historic step and throughout this Bill, we’ve seen cross-party cooperation at its best. But there is still much to be done. Domestic abuse is unacceptable whoever the victim is – and this needs to be reflected in law.