The Domestic Abuse Bill has now passed through the House of Commons stage and is one step closer to becoming law having been introduced to the House of Lords; this is a formality and takes place without any debate. The date for the second hearing, where the bill will be considered, has not yet been announced.

 

This bill remains a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to transform how the Government responds to domestic abuse ensuring that survivors are supported and have access to justice which holds perpetrators to account. This has never been more important. Domestic homicides are the highest they have been in over 5 years and domestic abuse continues to be perpetrated in every part of our society with over 2.4 million victims a year. The lockdown resulting from covid-19 has helped to shed a light on just how many members of our communities experience abuse and the desperate need for action to protect survivors and tackle the widespread perpetration of abuse.

 

Lives depend on this bill and that’s why so many have been calling for it to do more. As the bill progressed through the House of Commons organisations across the sector have been campaigning for further changes, some of which have resulted in amendments being passed, subject to them being passed by the House of Lords.

 

The bill has been amended to provide greater protection for children and now explicitly recognises that children exposed to domestic abuse are victims in their own right, they do not simply ‘witness’ or ‘hear’ abuse, they experience it. This is an important step is understanding children’s experience of abuse and their consequent support needs.

 

Perpetrators have used the family court system to perpetrate further abuse for too long and now family courts are changing. From the outset the bill has intended to widen the availability of special measures to the family and civil courts which is a welcome step to end the unnecessary risk and trauma survivors face taking part in court hearings. Survivors will now have an automatic entitlement to separate waiting rooms, entrances and can apply for special measures. It also gives additional powers for judges to consider ‘barring orders’, to stop perpetrators of abuse from repeatedly bringing survivors back to the courts, often used as a form of abuse itself. The bill also now includes a review of the ‘presumption of parental involvement’ in the family courts. The presumption encourages children to maintain relationships with both parents / guardians unless this is deemed to put the child at risk. This favours contact with abusers and has time and time again, put children in danger.

 

As a result of a number of campaigns, most notably that of ‘We Can’t Consent to This’; a new clause has been added to the bill putting an end to the ‘rough sex’ defence. The law currently states that to be charged with murder, there must be evidence of an intent to kill or seriously harm that person and many have used the ‘rough sex’ defence to deny this intent, arguing ‘consent for sexual gratification’ meaning they are charged with a lesser offence or in the worst case, are not recognised to have committed a crime at all. In their campaign, We Can’t Consent to This highlighted the cases of over 60 British women dying from a result of what was called ‘consensual’ sexual activity, 18 of which in the last 5 years. This argument will no longer be accepted by the courts meaning that perpetrators will no longer be able to rely on the defence to lessen their charge to manslaughter which carries a lighter sentence.

 

These are significant amendments which will have a profound impact for survivors and their families. Yet there is more to be done. Like so many in the sector, Safer Places welcome the bill but to maximise this opportunity to truly transform the response to domestic abuse and safe lives we need more.

 

We need funding that is sufficient to run safe services and funding that is sustainable and consistent across the country whilst meeting local need and demand. Although the bill for the first time places a duty on local authorities to provide safe accommodation for survivors and families, this will have to be done out of existing budgets. As it stands, there is no equal obligation for local authorities to commission IDVA and community services. Refuges are much needed life-saving services but they should not be the only funded service. Only including refuge services in the local authority duty has the potential to narrow the options available to survivors of abuse. It is imperative that survivors and their families choose their own steps on their journey to recovery and a range of services should be available to support this.

 

We need the bill to protect all survivors – domestic abuse does not discriminate and neither should routes to safety. At present, survivors without resource to public funding fall through the gaps in services and are left destitute facing heart-wrenching decisions and often staying in abusive relationships believing it is their only true choice. This bill has the power to amend immigration law so all migrant survivors can access financial support allowing them the same route to safety as those with recourse to funds. At Safer Places we have accommodation for women without recourse to funding, this is funded by ourselves out of our charitable funds. We strongly believe that lifesaving services such as ours should not have to rely on the generosity of our communities to survive. Despite significant evidence presented at committee stage from a wide number of specialists and survivors themselves, this is yet to be included in the bill.

 

Safer Places provide the largest stalking advocacy service in the country and we know that abusers use technology and threaten to share intimate images and videos. We echo the voices of others in the sector and call for this to be made an offence as although it is an offence to share intimate images and videos, it is not a specific offence to threaten to do so, even though this is an act of coercive control which so often shuts down paths to safety for survivors. Refuge charity has recently launched their latest campaign ‘The Naked Truth’ which sets out in detail the desperate need for this change.

 

The Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ) also continues to campaign to include ‘non-fatal strangulation’ in the bill. Currently this is not an offence in its own right and perpetrators are often charged with common assault or actual / grievous bodily harm depending on the injuries sustained. Non-fatal strangulation is one of the highest risk indicators leading to domestic homicide, not a common assault yet at present the suggested amendments have not passed.