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A Domestic Violence And Abuse Act: Necessary Step Or Unwelcome Distraction?

08/03/2017 12:05
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From injunctions to domestic violence protection orders, domestic violence protection notices and criminal laws, legal protections for people suffering from domestic violence and abuse are a piecemeal combination of criminal and civil laws which often fail to protect victims.

Theresa May has announced plans to change this. Her major consultation on domestic abuse is intended to result in a Domestic Violence and Abuse Act. This would both consolidate other relevant legislation and introduce new measures to help victims. Any attempt to improve our law - which doesn't take account of the fact that non-physical forms of violence and abuse are often just as serious as physical harm - is to be welcomed. But, if she really wants to help the millions of victims, the Prime Minister must ensure this focus on the law goes hand in hand with a commitment to ensure domestic violence prevention and support services, including policing, are properly funded.

The Prime Minister has shown a commitment to tackling domestic violence throughout her period as Home Secretary and now Prime Minister. She introduced legislation which criminalised 'controlling or coercive behaviour', thus intending to enable perpetrators of non-violent domestic abuse to be brought to justice. This law filled a terrible 'legislative gap', which had meant victims who experienced severe, long-term abuse in the context of an ongoing relationship but who did not suffer any physical injury were left without legal protection in the criminal courts. There are still concerns about how this law can be evidenced in court, and the law continues to contain a 'hierarchy of harm' whereby physical violence is still deemed to be more serious. The law still does not adequately recognise the psychological impact of domestic violence and abuse - the maximum jail sentence that can be imposed for controlling or coercive behaviour is just five years. Ongoing, inescapable abuse by an intimate partner is deeply traumatic and often leads to long-term psychological health problems. It is therefore vital that any new legislation reflects the severity physical and psychological harm.

A single piece of legislation has the potential to hugely improve the measures that are currently available to tackle domestic violence and abuse. It could make the law more straightforward whilst at the same time sending a clear message that behaviour of this type is both criminal and is taken seriously by all the agencies involved.

But Theresa May must realise there are other, more pressing matters when it comes to addressing domestic violence, not least the cuts in policing and other services which are having such a detrimental impact on domestic violence victims. The Prime Minister announced plans to increase funding for refuges in November of last year, but the pot of cash that refuges can bid for is only temporary and has been condemned by women's groups as 'too little too late' Women's Aid report that 17 per cent of all refuges in England have closed since 2010, and so this money is not enough to overcome the tide of funding cuts, and does not provide a long-term solution. There has been a huge reduction in specialist services for black and minority ethnic women, despite the fact that research indicates that nine out of ten BME survivors prefer to receive support from a specialist service who understand their culture and specific needs.

Many people are also concerned about the way the existing law on domestic violence is policed and enforced, and the continuing reluctance of victims to report the abuse or participate in the criminal justice process. It's all very well having better laws in place, but they rely upon victims coming forward, something many still find difficult, particularly those from BME communities or in same-sex partnerships. Legislation in itself won't change this, and may simply end up diverting resources away from trying to improve the operation of the law in this area.

I would also urge Theresa May to consider all relationships when developing these new laws. The offence of controlling or coercive behaviour covers all situations where the victim and perpetrator are 'intimately connected', not just romantic relationships, leading to concerns that the offence is too broad and does not address the gendered power dynamics typical in abusive intimate relationships. The statutory guidance makes it clear that this abuse is often by a man towards a woman, but other government policy takes a gender-neutral approach. It is important that any new legislation in this area is able to respond to the difficulties which arise due to societal gendered power imbalances, whilst at the same time being able to provide protection for male victims and those in same-sex relationships.

Having new legislation on the statute books will do nothing to improve the plight of the 1.4 million women and 750,000 children affected by domestic violence each year, unless it goes hand-in-hand with a government commitment to sufficient and permanent funding, not just for refuges but for police and all the services needed to support and protect those affected. Otherwise, this will just be another time where new legislation is introduced without addressing any of the other difficulties surrounding its enforcement.

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