Domestic Abuse Bill: survivors need more

by Rebecca Hilsenrath

Published: 08 Mar 2020

Any lawyer will tell you it’s a competitive old profession, and most of us had strong personal motivations for entering it.

Having previously studied ancient Latin and Greek, what led me to law was that it was about real living people. 

Law is a process and a framework but its purpose is to help real lives and protect real lives.

As a lawyer in the UK - indeed, as a resident of the UK - I take certain things for granted and of course I’m lucky to be living in this era, in this society. But the truth is that some legislation, even that which has the objective and potential for real good, actually fails those who need protection most of all.

In Britain, in 2020, it’s an unpalatable truth but I’m going to say it - we are still failing adequately to protect and support survivors of domestic abuse.

We are still failing adequately to protect and support survivors of domestic abuse

Later this month, the UN will review the UK’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

At the Equality and Human Rights Commission, while we are proud of the UK’s global leadership in human rights, we have raised wide-ranging concerns about the UK’s civil and political rights record, and one of the key issues we have highlighted to the UN is the need to do more to help survivors of domestic abuse.

Domestic abuse is a serious, violent and widespread crime which primarily impacts women and children. And it is an area where survivors are failed again and again.

Figures released in March 2019 showed that 1.6 million women had experienced domestic abuse in the preceding year. That’s 1.6 million too many.

We have to provide better support and protection to those affected. The law says we have to meet our international obligations under the ICCPR, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Istanbul Convention.

But it’s not just what the law says. There are 1.6 million reasons to stop letting women down.

Last week, the Domestic Abuse Bill was introduced into Parliament. We profoundly welcome this very positive and encouraging step forward.

The Bill is intended to be a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to transform the response to domestic abuse. We truly hope it will be. Our anxiety is that in its current form it falls short of that vision. There are still too many gaps, too many barriers in the way of support, and too little ring-fenced funding for services.

And on International Women’s Day, we urgently need to focus on the many migrant women who live in Britain and have little choice but to stay in a violent or abusive home.

Many migrant women are currently unable to access essential support services, such as refuges. This forces them to choose between destitution and returning to their attacker.

Many don’t seek help from the police or go to hospital, through fear of information being shared with immigration enforcement. That means no medical assistance, no hope of finding justice and no safe place to turn to.

As a country, as a society, as a profession, we cannot abandon these women. The government says it has launched a review into what support can be provided to them but, given the legislative timetable, my concern is that this will be too little, too late. 

To really deserve the label of “landmark domestic abuse legislation” the Bill needs to make sure that there is equal protection for all. That includes those with insecure immigration status.

There have been some significant improvements to the Bill. In particular, I welcome the new legal duty on local authorities to provide adequate support services for survivors in refuge accommodation.

But this doesn’t go far enough and still won’t benefit migrant women. It doesn’t extend to community-based support services, for those who are not in a refuge but still need support from frontline services such as Independent Domestic Violence Advocates. Access to this kind of support is essential and can be a lifeline for survivors.

Another improvement is the extension of the ban on cross-examination in person so that it applies to all family proceedings where there is evidence of domestic abuse. But survivors need more.

Going to court is stressful for anyone, but for survivors of domestic abuse it can be particularly traumatic. As it stands, survivors often aren’t able to access separate waiting rooms outside court or be given separate entrance and exit times.

Although the Bill proposes measures that would go some way to addressing this issue in the criminal court, that presumption does not extend to the family or civil courts. So in matters such as divorce proceedings or custody hearings, a survivor risks coming face-to-face with their abuser. And in the civil courts, survivors still face being cross-examined in person by their perpetrator.

We need to make sure that survivors feel protected wherever they have to go to court, and whatever the type of proceedings.

Act now, so that millions more can be better protected in the future

We have made a number of recommendations to improve the Bill including better protections for migrant women, new provisions for the courts to remove barriers to justice and better funding and support for relevant services. If this is going to be the landmark legislation that has been trumpeted, then these changes must be taken on board.

The Domestic Abuse Bill really is an opportunity for change, but only if the Government listens to the experts. We are saying that, at the moment, it isn’t good enough.

Remember the 1.6 million. Act now, so that millions more can be better protected in the future.