Domestic abuse is a criminal offence, first defined in 1973 by Jack Astley. Domestic abuse is recently defined as an incident of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour/ violence of abuse: whether physical, emotional, sexual or financial. Before discussing the Domestic Abuse Bill we must understand where the idea of the Bill has evolved from.
Domestic Abuse is currently reflected within a multitude of different legislations: Serious Crime Act 2015 (s76), Sexual Offences Act 2003 and the Sexual Offences Against a Person Act 1861. The landmark DA bill aims to bring this altogether. As explained later it becomes apparent why the current system is not working requiring this landmark reform.
The statistics make for shocking reading:
• More than 1 in 10 offences police record are DA related
• 2 Women per week on average are killed by partners/ former partners
• 2 million adults suffer DA every year (1.3 million woman and 695,000 men)
• Domestic Abuse costs England and Wales £66 billion per year
• The rate of domestic abuse has increased by 23% since 2018
• Conviction rate of 76%
Domestic Abuse is often a hidden crime going unreported to police. Therefore, this data is only representative on a partial level, rather than its actual level. While 76% may seem like a high conviction rate, this only takes into account cases that are pursued by the CPS all the way to trial, which as explained below is only a small proportion of the overall cases. Overall this is one of the most severe human rights issues the UK faces. It is crucial to the social mechanism of equality between men and women affecting the civilian population to solve this. These figures are rightfully alarming and begs the question how are these figures so high? Why is the conviction rate so low? And how is this going to be tackled?
These figures are caused by a combination of factors, including the victims’ fears of their partners (only 38/100 DA crimes recorded last year), a lack of resources for victims and lack of training for police. Another reason for the significantly low conviction rate is that victims at any time may decide not to take any further actions to convict, meaning that the perpetrators instead receive a restraining order or are acquitted. Further, the record reduces even more when one takes into accounts cases where the CPS lacks the requisite evidence (only 18% of DA cases were referred from the police to the CPS) to prosecute. When this occurs, the police may consider the use of Out of Court Disposal Cautions.
Another factor includes the reduction in government funding, such as Legal Aid: victims have to compete with other individuals to seek refuge and escape (60% of women refused). The Legal Aid cuts also mean more victims have to face abusers in court without legal support: in 2017 this was 3234 victims. This process becomes even harsher when victims are forced to face cross examination from their partners/former partners. The conviction rate is also lower due to the introduction of Domestic Violence Protection Orders in 2014. These are frequently used when there is a lack of evidence to charge the perpetrator. In addition, Domestic Violence Disclosure Schemes allow the right to ask current partners and know if they have been accused of domestic violence.
The rate reduces when we consider that other support services are used instead e.g. healthcare. A recent government survey indicates more reasons why these figures are so high with a low conviction rate:
• 46% feel it is too trivial and not worth reporting,
• 39.5% feel it is a private family matter not political business
• 7.% feel they are unable to get help
• Other common reasons include the fear of embarrassment and feeling the police won’t help
• 1% have out of court disposals
• 24% victims refuse to be called as a witness in front of the perpetrators to be cross examined (resulting in victims retracting/ not attending court)
• Non- Molestation and Occupation Orders
The UK has to follow the UN convention (The Istanbul Convention of 2011) that the government ratified regarding domestic abuse by addressing crimes which primarily not exclusively, tend to be perpetrated by men against women. This was the first legislative binding framework of its kind for domestic abuse against individuals. The UK signed this agreement but, did not ratify this agreement. Ratifying is the process of giving formal consent to a treaty. As this is signed the UK cannot work against this convention, nor be fully accountable under international human rights law. Instead it must work in conjunction with the concepts it lays out. The convention aims to protect individuals internationally from all forms of violence and eliminate all forms of discrimination whilst promoting female empowerment. This treaty aims to support and assist organisations and law enforcement agencies to co-operate and eliminate this violence through their aims, actions and measures.
In July 2017, the UK Prisons and Courts Bill attempted to tackle the psychological harm caused to victims of domestic abuse who report their abuse. The law involved rules preventing cross examination of victims in family courts. However, this was abandoned by Theresa May in 2017 because of the snap general election.
Finally, parliament introduced the landmark reforming Domestic Abuse Bill in July 2019. The Bill aims to transform the justice system, increase the 76% conviction rate, and create new statutory agencies. In summary this aims to cover economic, control and manipulative non-physical behaviour. The bill aims to introduce the following key areas:
• Defining domestic abuse- including economic loss
• Ending the cross examination of victims by abusers in family courts
• Establish a Domestic Abuse Commissioner, encouraging accountability among local and national authorities
• Introduction of Domestic Abuse Protection Notices and Orders allowing police and court intervention where abuse is suspected
• Provide automatic eligibility by special measure to support more victims to give evidence in criminal courts
However, the recent prorogation has checked the process of the Domestic Abuse Bill. Prorogation is the process of the Prime Minister (Boris Johnson) advising the monarch (Queen Elizabeth) to suspend government. This currently has been granted, but its legality and motives are due to be examined by the Supreme Court on 17th September 2019. It must be noted that The Scottish Court of Appeal has held the prorogation to be unlawful!
Prorogation (suspending government) means all Bills within the Houses of Parliament are automatically dropped. As the DA Bill was recently brought into parliament at the start of its political journey, less has been lost/undone. The suspension of the Bill due to prorogation has caused outcry amongst human rights and domestic abuse Bill campaigners: most notably former head of the Family Court James Murphy demanding a change in the law.
This Bill is a once in a generation Bill that requires resurrection and prioritising to tackle injustice and lower the conviction rate. Boris Johnson has confirmed on the 12th September 2019 that they want to tackle this “horrific crime”. The Queen’ Speech should be confirming that the Bill will be carried into the next parliamentary session, instead of being automatically dropped. This reflects the necessity of this legislation politically to protect DA survivors without starting again from scratch.
This is a pivotal moment for the UK in terms of Brexit and the Domestic Abuse Bill. These issues must be tackled promptly to prevent further victims suffering. Currently £47 billion is spent on physical and emotional harm, including £2.3 billion for the health service and £7.24 million for victim services. Domestic Abuse seems to be a growing trend with 599,549 recorded cases last year. Approximately 24.9% of women and 10% of men aged 16 to 59 have experienced partner abuse at least once since the age of 16. This emphasises the necessity for this bill to become law without delay. As this evidence is only from recorded data, it doesn’t include the impact on individuals who face unreported domestic abuse.
For any of those affected by this article there are services available such as Woman’s aid, National domestic Violence Helpline and Men’s Advice Line Mankind.