Following a lengthy journey through Parliament, the Domestic Abuse Act has finally been made law. The Act provides for better support of survivors of abuse, both within the court system and in the community. However, for many campaigners, the Act remains too limited in scope and represents a wasted opportunity.
Definition of Domestic abuse
The new statutory definition of domestic abuse specifically recognises emotional abuse, economic abuse and coercive controlling behaviour (which includes post-separation abuse) as being types of domestic abuse. Although, in recent years, there has been a movement away from the restrictive historic view of abuse as simply constituting violence or threats, specifying the full range of behaviours that constitute domestic abuse is likely to be helpful for survivors seeking support.
The Act specifically recognises children as victims of abuse if they see, hear, or experience the effects of abuse. Moreover, the Act makes clear that, behaviour by a perpetrator may be considered behaviour "towards" a survivor if it consists of conduct directed at a third party, for example a child.
Protection in court
Many survivors of abuse have spoken about the re-traumatizing effect of having to re-live their experiences of abuse within court proceedings. This has only been enhanced where their abuser has been able to cross-examine them directly. Although the courts have for some years been able to utilise "special measures", such as providing screens in court, or allowing survivors to give their evidence by video-link, the use of such measures by different courts tended to be inconsistent and could depend on the individual Judge. The Act provides that survivors of abuse will be assumed to be eligible for special measures. Moreover, the perpetrator of abuse will no longer be able to cross examine the survivor of that abuse in civil or family proceedings. Although, in practice, many Judges already ensure that survivors are not to be cross-examined by their abusers, the Act should ensure consistency of approach in this regard.
Greater support in the community
Recognising that in order to properly protect survivors, the scope of support provided needs to extend beyond the Courts, the Act provides powers and extends duties to promote early responses to domestic abuse.
The Act introduces Domestic Abuse Protection Notices, which provide the police with improved powers to assist survivors with immediate short-term protection from their abusers. The Act further imposes a legal duty on local authorities in England to fund safe accommodation for survivors of domestic abuse and their children. Further, all eligible homeless survivors of domestic abuse will automatically be considered to have 'priority need' for homelessness assistance. Notable by its absence, however, is the fact that the Act, whilst mentioning 'accommodation based' services, does not reference 'refuges' and the specialist domestic abuse support and services that such spaces provide.
Survivors who are excluded from protection under the Act
There are gaps in the Act, which mean that individuals who have an uncertain immigration status will not be afforded the same protections as other survivors of abuse. The Home Office is currently undertaking an internal review of the position of migrant women with NRPF (no recourse to public funds), however it is disappointing that not all survivors will be protected equally under the Act, particularly where migrant women are at particular risk of serious and prolonged forms of abuse, such as slavery, and may have little recourse to other support and/or resources. Many charities and campaigners in the domestic abuse and immigration sphere have stated that they will continue their effort to have the protections afforded by the Act extended to all victims of domestic abuse, regardless of immigration status.
The Domestic Abuse Act is the product of an impressive collaboration by domestic abuse organisations, survivors, campaigners, parliamentarians, police and other interested parties. Whilst in some respects the Act does not go far enough, it sends a clear message that support for survivors needs to be increased at every level, and recognises that domestic abuse and its devastating impacts cannot be tolerated.