The Victims' Commissioner congratulates the Government on listening to domestic abuse campaigners in adding new laws to Domestic Abuse Bill, and urges further steps.
- New offence of non-fatal strangulation and strengthened ‘revenge porn’ laws added to ground-breaking Domestic Abuse Bill
- Controlling or coercive behaviour offence extended to include abuse where perpetrators and victims no longer live together
- £19m Budget package to pilot ‘Respite Rooms’ and programmes to stop abuse happening in the first place
The Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, Dame Vera Baird QC says:
I welcome new clauses to be added to the Domestic Abuse Bill and congratulate the Government on listening to campaigners who have been telling them that these measures are vital. This is an impressive package and the Bill is now hugely better than it was but there are still some outstanding changes the Government should make.
It is good that ‘revenge porn’ laws – introduced by the government in 2015, will be widened to make threats to disclose intimate images into a criminal offence. Threatening to send intimate images, either taken with consent or using the access given by a relationship is a dreadful way that perpetrators use to oppress a coercively controlled domestic abuse victim to prevent her escape. Victims of these offences refer to having their image sent to their relatives and/or put on a porn website as like being raped repeatedly in public. It can be extremely psychologically damaging. Some report they cannot face meeting anyone new because they are sure that everyone will recognise them from their image. However, I am not sure why the government wants to say that to be criminal, the perpetrators intent must be to cause distress. This will open up a defence that they sent them to a porn site for money or to share with like-minded others. It is the sharing that does the damage and that should be a standalone offence whatever the motive.
Extending controlling or coercive behaviour to cover a situation where abusers and victims are no longer living together will save lives. Some statistics suggest more than half of all domestic abuse killings are done after separation as the perpetrator tries to tighten their grip to recover the position. A government review itself highlighted that those who leave abusive ex-partners can often be subjected to sustained or increased controlling or coercive behaviour post-separation.
It is obvious therefore important that criminal measures that can be used to intervene quickly should cover the post separation period and good that the government has taken this point.
The House of Lords has played a huge role in promoting the need for non-fatal strangulation to be made a specific criminal offence, punishable by up to five years in prison. In the debates on the Bill, more than half of the speakers argued that this very dangerous practice, which is little noted currently by police, should immediately be criminalised. Use of non-fatal strangulation increases seven fold the risk of being killed by a perpetrator and can often cause internal injury as well as the obvious terror since it can imply a threat to kill. I congratulate the government on successfully shaping an appropriate amendment to bring this offence into force.
Doubling the amount to be spent on tackling perpetrators in the forthcoming budget demonstrates strongly the government’s determination to stop abuse from happening in the first place and I congratulate them on further investing in this essential and sometimes underestimated area of work.
A further £4m to help more vulnerable homeless women access specialist support in ‘Respite Rooms’ is extremely welcome.
There is more to do to make this bill the once-in-a-generation opportunity to strengthen our response to domestic abuse and its many forms. Up to half of women in prison at any one time have been victims of domestic abuse, with many having committed offences far smaller than those which have been committed against them. The government should give serious consideration to legislating for a defence to be able to be put before a court where a victim of domestic abuse says that they offended only when their will was overborne by coercive control. This would be fairer to victims of domestic abuse whilst leaving the issue to the court.
Recent research has demonstrated the worrying position of women victims of domestic abuse who kill their violent partner. There is insufficient acknowledgement in current law or sentencing of the common imbalance in strength between perpetrator and victim. Use of a weapon is far more likely to be a necessity if it is in response to an imminent attack by a greatly stronger and aggressive perpetrator, yet this is not recognised. There is a serious question too over self-defence. Currently, the law allows someone to use disproportionate force in defending their property, whilst a domestic abuse victim may only lawfully use strictly proportionate force to protect themselves against an attack and if they go a step too far, they may be convicted of murder. This is obviously wrong and if the government cannot review the law for this Bill, there is a Police Bill to come which will offer a further opportunity
I further welcome that my colleague Nicole Jacobs, the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, will in the future receive a copy of every Domestic Homicide Review (DHR). However there is an urgent need for a rule that a second opinion must be given at a high level in the Home Office when a local community safety partnership (CSP) decides not to hold a DHR. This has recently happened in connection with the domestic killing of Ruth Williams in Gwent by her husband. That the local agencies had not been involved with the family is expressly a reason to hold a DHR, since something may have been missed. Given that many of those agencies will have a presence on the CSP which decides not to hold a review, in a case like this where there is huge public concern, it is imperative that sanction for such a decision is located at a high level in national government.