The Domestic Abuse Bill returns to Parliament today. The Victims' Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird QC and the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, Nicole Jacobs, have published a joint article setting out what it needs to be truly transformative.
Dame Vera Baird – Victims’ Commissioner
Nicole Jacob – Domestic Abuse Commissioner
Domestic Abuse is a heinous crime, affecting millions of people and which the Government estimated cost society more than £60 billion in 2017-18. 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 affected – can be devastating.
The Domestic Abuse Bill, which returns to Parliament today, is a once in a generation opportunity for us to confront this abuse. But it must go much further if the Government is to deliver on its own promise to introduce a ‘landmark Bill’ that genuinely transforms our response to domestic abuse.
There are key provisions which will have a real impact. As the two Commissioners most closely involved, the Victims Commissioner and the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, we welcome the intention to bring change.
Provisions that bring clear statutory powers to the office of the Domestic Abuse Commissioner will allow her to better hold local and national government to account.
We are also pleased the Bill now includes more protections for victims. In particular, the placing of a duty on local authorities to provide refuge accommodation, is crucial to save lives.
We also welcome that a broader range of victims will be protected by extending the ban on perpetrators from cross-examining their victims to both Family and Civil Courts. However, we are concerned that the Bill still does not go far enough and the absence of any provisions relating to children or migrant victims represents a significant lost opportunity.
While a welcome step, the commitment to place a statutory duty on Local Authorities to provide accommodation-based services is much too narrow. Not only does this exclude the majority of services victims access outside of a refuge, but it risks already cash-strapped Local Authorities de-prioritising community based services in order to meet the statutory duty. We know this is not the Government’s intention. To truly provide for victims and survivors, the duty must cover all domestic abuse services, including for children and behaviour-change programmes for perpetrators.
Despite calls from the third sector and a comprehensive report from Barnardo’s launched last week (‘Not Just Collateral Damage’) showing the harm domestic abuse does to children, there is nothing in the Bill which acknowledges this or the need for children to have access to specialist support services. The Barnardo’s report sets out the stark reality of the impact domestic abuse can have on children, which can increase the chances of suffering from poor mental health, sexual abuse and exploitation by gangs. Despite these additional risks, access to specialist services for these children is patchy and, all too often, they do not get the support they need. It is imperative that the Bill recognises the harm domestic abuse does to children and makes it clear that specialist support services are essential to help them get their lives back on track.
The Government must show real leadership and champion the rights of children who have been subjected to domestic abuse.
We are also disappointed the government has not taken this opportunity to send a clear message that courts should not accept the ‘rough sex defence’, used with increasing frequency by perpetrators of serious violent offences and murder. It is horrific that perpetrators continue to claim they didn’t mean to kill their victim, it was just a game that went too far and one which the victim had consented to. For families suffering the sudden trauma of a murder to have to hear their loved one’s sex life raked over in court and hear their killer saying that the victim is culpable, when they are not there to speak for themselves, is unendurable. This defence often relies on deploying reprehensible stereotypes about women’s sexuality and bare-faced misogyny in an attempt to sway a jury. And as the We Can’t Consent To This campaign has showed, it appears to work. We are clear that the right to use this argument as part of a defence case is not just and must not be allowed to continue.
For the Bill to be transformative it needs to send a clear message that domestic abuse is unacceptable whoever the victim is. At the moment, many migrant women who are victims of domestic abuse cannot get any support – including a life-saving place in a refuge –because their immigration status means they cannot access public funds. Equally, 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. This is an outrageous situation, with women forced to continue living in dangerous relationships because they have nowhere else to go; and it offers impunity to dangerous violent offenders.
The Domestic Abuse Bill must help all victims, regardless of their immigration status. To do otherwise contravenes the Istanbul Convention – to which the UK is a signatory – which stipulates non-discrimination in the provision of services.
There are other areas we would like to see covered in the Bill in order to more comprehensively protect and support victims and survivors. These include better protections for victims who commit crime because they are being coercively controlled by their partner; a properly funded public awareness campaign; and a specific offence of threatening to disseminate intimate images, ‘revenge porn’, which can be used as a means of controlling abused partners.
There are also fundamental issues with the way that the family courts deal with domestic abuse and the Bill offers an important opportunity to address these. We very much hope that these issues will be dealt with thoroughly by the Family Justice Panel, which the Government have asked to consider this issue in detail. We look forward to seeing their report and would like to see the Government bring key recommendations into force through this Bill.
Even without the Panel’s report, we would have liked more from the Government to address well-known issues within the Family Courts, for example, by providing trauma training for the judiciary so that they recognise how a traumatised victim might present themselves.
This Bill is a chance to transform our approach to domestic abuse once and for all, to show millions of victims up and down the country that they are not alone.
We hope the Government seizes this crucial opportunity.