The Domestic Abuse Act, which marks its first anniversary today, was a significant step forwards for the 2.4 million people who experience domestic abuse every year across England and Wales.
It was a long time in coming but after tireless work by survivors, campaigners, charities and politicians it provides far greater provisions and protections than ever before for victims and survivors of domestic abuse.
The Act sets out in law for the first time what domestic abuse is.
The definition goes well beyond physical violence and helps us understand the horrendous range of abusive behaviour, including emotional and sexual abuse, coercive control and economic abuse that victims can be subjected to.
Crucially, children are also recognised as victims of domestic abuse in their own right for the very first time.
Amongst other key changes the Act brings in new protection orders, bans the “rough sex” defence, gives Clare’s Law (allowing victims to find out about partners’ previous offending) a statutory base and puts a duty on local authorities to fund accommodation-based services like refuges.
Moves to ban perpetrators from cross-examining domestic abuse victims in both civil and family law proceedings were enshrined in the legislation and will come into effect over the next few months.
Victims will also be automatically eligible for other special measures (for example, giving evidence behind a screen or via a video link) in the family, civil and criminal courts, which we expect to see rolled out later this year.
Non-fatal strangulation was included as a new standalone criminal offence, which will make a huge difference to 20,000 victims who experience this every year and is expected to come into force in June 2022. The Act extended the coercive and controlling behaviour offence to post-separation abuse and this is expected to be implemented later this year.
The Act also created the role of the Domestic Abuse Commissioner and furnished my office with powers to help drive change nationally.
These measures are all extremely significant and many will save lives. There can no doubt that the legislation was a great leap in the right direction but there’s far more to be done to support victims, to tackle the causes of domestic abuse and hold perpetrators to account.
This need for more urgent, rapid change was highlighted during the Covid pandemic which shone a light on domestic abuse as victims and their children were forced into lock down with perpetrators often without respite and abuse could escalated quite quickly.
Domestic Abuse didn’t end when the Act received Royal Assent and there needs to be far more focus on prevention, early intervention and a more co-ordinated community response. I believe that one way to achieve this is through bolstering community-based services, who provide life-saving work before the point at which a victim is forced to flee their home. They also help to pick up the pieces after abuse and are crucial in their advocacy for victims and the way in which they support statutory agencies to be better.
The Victims Bill provides the perfect opportunity to ensure that community-based services get the recognition and funding they need to plug some of the gaps which were left unfilled in the Domestic Abuse Act.
I would like to see a statutory provision in the Victims Bill for these community-based services which are a lifeline for many domestic abuse survivors and their children. These services could include advocacy, safety planning, therapeutic support and counselling, support for children, and work with perpetrators to change their behaviour.
This new duty would provide support to all victims and survivors, including children, no matter where they live and regardless of their immigration status, through community-based services alongside accommodation-based services.
A critical element of this will be ring-fenced, committed funding for specialist ‘by and for’ services, who reach and support those people who face the most marginalisation and greatest barriers to accessing help.
This would enable support for prevention, early intervention and crisis intervention, and provide programmes to challenge perpetrator behaviour and prevent abuse in the future. This duty would apply to all relevant public authorities in line with the current commissioning landscape, including Police and Crime Commissioners, Local Authorities and NHS bodies, including for example, Integrated Care Boards.
As part of this duty, I am also calling on the Government to provide £18.7m over three years to ensure that victims of domestic abuse with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) can access support, accommodation and subsistence. Many people were concerned that migrant survivors were not given the protection they need and deserve in the Domestic Abuse Act and it’s more than time that this was rectified.
Migrant survivors of domestic abuse are some of the most vulnerable in our society and are often forced to choose between staying with a perpetrator or facing destitution or deportation.
To help redress this I would urge the Government to create a firewall between the police and other public services and immigration enforcement, alongside funded pathways to specialist support and legal advice and representation, so that victims and survivors can safely report domestic abuse.
No victim of domestic abuse should ever be left behind and it’s my role as the Domestic Abuse Commissioner to ensure that they are not.
That starts with holding the Government to account and naturally that must begin with holding them to their promises to deliver change through the very act of parliament that brought my role into being.