Domestic Abuse Bill: a missed opportunity to help victims access legal aid
Instances of domestic abuse have increased exponentially during lockdown
The Domestic Abuse Bill (the Bill), which received royal assent yesterday, has been broadly welcomed; however, many felt the Bill could have gone further.
Felicity Fleming, a Local Authority childcare solicitor, described the Bill as a “positive step forward”, particularly at a time when domestic abuse has become “significantly worse” due to individuals being isolated during the pandemic.
Between March and June 2020, the Office for National Statistics reported a year-on-year increase of 9 per cent in reported cases of domestic violence.
The National Domestic Abuse Helpline saw call volumes increase by 66 per cent during lockdown and a 300 per cent rise in visits to its website.
Respect Men's Advice Line said between April and July 2020 it saw a 96 per cent increase in contact with victims through email.
New cases in the family courts saw a year-on-year increase of 6 per cent for the period October to December 2020, of which 21 per cent were domestic violence-related.
Law Society president, I. Stephanie Boyce, said: “We appreciate the UK government’s commitment to tackling domestic abuse and we are pleased to see a ban on the cross-examination of domestic abuse victims by their perpetrators, the inclusion of economic abuse into the statutory definition of domestic abuse, the addition of children aged 16 and 17, and the appointment of a Domestic Abuse Commissioner.”
Fleming also welcomed the broader definition: “It clarifies abuse goes much further than physical violence, which is what most people assume domestic abuse is.
“This will hopefully encourage more victims to come forward and seek the help and protection they need, including those suffering emotional abuse and controlling behaviour.”
Boyce commented: “Clauses which improve the protection of victims from cross-examination by their alleged abusers are long overdue.
“Some proposals, however, do not go far enough; for instance, alleged abusers should also be banned from examining some other witnesses – the couple’s children being the prime example – in court.”
Fleming welcomed that the Bill “… also recognises children'¯as victims if they'¯see,'¯hear'¯or experience the effects'¯of'¯abuse – in the past they were often forgotten.
She added: “Domestic abuse not only affects them at the time it happens, but can also cause long-lasting effects, including normalising this behaviour, so it becomes a feature in their future relationships”.
Boyce said it is “vital” the justice system is equipped to tackle domestic abuse cases and Fleming shared concerns about the support available:
“… the worry is, by placing more of a duty on local authorities to'¯provide'¯support to victims of domestic abuse in refuges and other safe'¯accommodation, this puts additional pressure on already overwhelmed services, under extra pressure due to the pandemic. Additional support needs to be provided, and these sources and additional resources found and supported.”
“Lockdown measures have made it even more difficult for victims to get time and space away from their alleged abuser. This creates significant barriers to accessing vital support services and legal advice," Boyce commented.
“The increased risk to… safety… during this time makes it essential that routes to support and legal recourse are kept as open as possible.”
Boyce suggested the criteria for legal aid should be “urgently revised… to ensure that victims of domestic abuse can access legal advice without having their means assessed.”
She added: “There is insufficient support for victims of abuse to pursue their legal cases. The Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) had a significant effect on the ability of victims of abuse to access the legal advice, assistance and representation that they need in order to escape abusive relationships.
“We believe legal aid should be re-introduced for early advice in all family cases. This will ensure that victims of abuse are identified at an early stage and assisted in getting the access to justice that is needed to protect them and their children."
Fleming agreed: “Since the introduction of LASPO, it has become harder for victims of domestic abuse to access legal advice and obtain the funding to enable them to step away and protect themselves and their family. As such, many people continue to endure suffering, as they feel they can never truly break away."
Boyce concluded, “If people cannot access advice or protect their rights, then those rights effectively do not exist. The UK government’s package of support for the new Act is a step in the right direction and brings domestic abuse to the forefront of public conversation. We look forward to working with the UK government as they put these plans into action.”