COVID-19 and Domestic Abuse

Since the second week of Covid-19 related lockdown in the UK, which commenced 23rd March 2020, it has been reported in the media that domestic abuse killings have more than doubled. Reports to Crimestoppers, an independent UK charity, have increased by 50% during this time, and the National Domestic Abuse Helpline have reported a 120% rise in the number of calls they have received. As such it is important to understand how the government and police departments are helping the most vulnerable and what support is available.

Current Legislation

As of yet there is no statutory definition of domestic abuse, but the Domestic Abuse Bill 2020 proposed by the government will provide this, given that the bill passes. It is important to note that domestic abuse is not always physical violence but can also include though is not limited to; coercive control and ‘gaslighting’, economic abuse, verbal abuse, emotional abuse and sexual abuse.

Domestic abuse victims are currently protected by different pieces of legislation but most of these are not specific to domestic abuse. Examples of non-specific legislation are the Offences Against the Person Act which deals with incidents of serious physical violence and the Criminal Justice Act 1988 which deals with incidents of less serious assaults. Specific legislation to domestic abuse is found in Part 5 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 under s. 76 which deals with controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship and Part IV in the Family Law Act 1996, as amended by the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004, which deals with family homes and domestic violence. As you can see from the aforementioned legislation, the law in regard to domestic abuse is fragmented and difficult to follow.

The Domestic Abuse Disclosure Scheme (also referred to as “Clare's law”) was implemented across England and Wales in 2014 and was introduced following the murder of 36-year-old Clare Woods by her boyfriend in 2009. The result of this scheme is that people who have concerns about their partner’s background can apply for disclosure from the police who will provide information wherever there is any. It also permits close friends or family members to apply for this disclosure concerning a partner.

Direct response from the Government due to Covid-19

New efforts by the UK government in an attempt to offer help to victims are shown by the guidance factsheet released by the Home Office for domestic abuse victims during Covid-19, detailing key information regarding domestic abuse and what specialist services are available. It has been stated that the household isolation guidelines introduced by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson do not apply to situations of domestic abuse. Therefore, if a victim feels the need to escape their place of residence due to domestic abuse, then this is permitted, and victims will not be subject to the punishments for breaking the isolation restrictions. Alongside this guidance, the Home Office has introduced a campaign, promoted on Twitter using the hashtag “#YouAreNotAlone”, in an attempt to raise awareness of the situation via the social media platform. This is to encourage the public to show solidarity and to help victims become aware of the help available to them. The campaign aims to raise awareness by publicising details of where victims can seek help, and the Home Office have announced that they will provide a £750 million boost to the charity sector, which will also help domestic abuse charities given that they are successful in their bidding for the funding, plus an additional £2 million to immediately support domestic abuse helplines and online support.

Responses from elsewhere

Individual police departments are increasingly implementing new measures to help with the reporting of domestic abuse situations. South Yorkshire Police have implemented an online portal, in direct response to Covid-19, that victims can now submit to instead of using conventional methods of reporting that might now be unsafe for victims to use. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a cohesive response happening across all police departments and some seem to be doing more than others.

What could the Government do?

A sad and surreal element of this current situation for victims would be that in the event of being subject to domestic abuse, post-Covid-19 lockdown guidelines, some may feel trapped as a result of an inability to escape said torment. With the current lockdown not looking like slowing and with government extension of said guidelines it is likely this fear and abuse will be exacerbated. While the home secretary, Priti Patel, ensured in her announcement that “where a victim, and their children, do need to leave, we will ensure they have a safe place to go” the reality seems to be far from that.

From popular hotel chains and franchises all the way down to cheap hostels, communities appear to be taking a more “hands-on” approach by offering to provide their vacant rooms to victims free of charge and providing meals daily. However, it is being reported by the charities that the government is yet to secure this opportunity and have not contacted the hostels and hotels regarding this offer. This is a far cry from the situation in other countries, such as France, whose government has put measures in place to enable hotels to provide their rooms for victims and open pop-up counselling centres in shops, initially in Paris and Lille. As such it is vital that despite the government already working towards providing additional help and support to victims, the argument can be made that they are not efficiently exercising the facilities and resources available to them.

An additional issue that might arise concerns the current timescale for the reporting of summary offences. Under s127(1) Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980, crimes that are summary only must be prosecuted within six months. Summary offences include minor assaults and offensive behaviour. Given the current situation of Covid-19 it may be impossible for victims to report the crime up until after the six-month period has expired and as such, there should be accommodations made so that these crimes can be reported and dealt with effectively after the lockdown is lifted.

In the UK, call the national domestic abuse helpline on 0808 2000 247 or visit Women’s Aid. By Bethany Lockwood

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