Family law: cost-of-living crisis or cost-of-loving crisis?
Shanika Haynes assesses the impact of inflation on family relationships
Recent statistics released by the Home Office have revealed a dramatic, and somewhat frightening, increase in reported instances of the crime of controlling and coercive behaviour (CCB) with 39,183 crimes reported in 2021, a 57.6 per cent increase on the previous year.
However, few of these cases ever reach the criminal court and even fewer come to a conviction. In 94.4 per cent of the instances reported, the offender received no punishment for their crime. In England and Wales in 2021, only 434 people were convicted for controlling and coercive behaviour in 2021, a miniscule 0.01 per cent of the number of offences recorded by the Home Office.
The difficult reality is controlling and abusive behaviour, particularly within a relationship, is on the rise and is something we need to be aware of as we continue to deal with the cost-of-living crisis. The figures from last year are likely to continue to increase during 2022 as we face the continuing crisis.
The current financial situation in the UK has caused tensions between couples to build and is having a considerable impact on people in abusive relationships.
Financial tensions exponentially increase the risk of physical, emotional, and financial abuse. Many people, particularly women, feel trapped, as they cannot afford to leave their abusive partner. Access to money can be an insurmountable barrier when it comes to leaving an abuser or seeking support.
Stowe Family Law recently conducted a survey into the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on relationships. A staggering 90 per cent of respondents revealed the crisis had already affected them, and a quarter of respondents remained in their current relationship for fear of not being able to afford life on their own. With ever-increasing costs and bills set to rise imminently, financial tensions in relationships are at an all-time high, and the likelihood of abusive behaviour is stronger than ever.
Survivors of domestic abuse have called for tougher measures to protect survivors from their perpetrators. There are clearly issues with the current protective orders, and a number of instances of where they are failing the survivors of domestic abuse.
For example, a non-molestation order carries automatic powers of arrest if breached, but any action relies on the police having the resources to attend in time, take immediate action and follow through after the breach.
Lack of enforcement can be a serious issue when it comes to protective orders. This has been pushed to the limits with an inexperienced police force, as experienced officers leave their jobs in droves, as well as a backlog of court cases.
Breaches of orders, such as the non-molestation order, are also not always given the priority they should be by the police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).
If no further action is taken by the police or CPS following a breach, the abuse survivor can apply back to the court for committal via the family court, but this will inevitably be emotionally and financially draining, and does not give any guarantee of serious sanctions.
Survivors are seeking tougher measures, such as electronic tagging, after government data has shown prosecutions for breach of some orders have failed by 40 per cent in recent years. However, the proposed pilot scheme for a civil and Domestic Abuse Protection Order is still dependent on police co-operation. The scheme itself is underway in North Yorkshire and allows North Yorkshire police officers to record orders centrally on the national database, which means the police can access all relevant details when breaches occur.
What needs to be remembered is that support of survivors of domestic abuse is complex and requires multi-agency involvement and consistency. Improving the enforcement of protection orders is important, but a holistic review of services is required to ensure survivors of abuse have the right support when they need it.
The court backlogs from covid-19 and beforehand, as well as various budget cuts across departments, mean we cannot properly protect victims of abuse or deal with the issue at the root cause
On top of this, many victims of abuse are often too scared to report the crime for fear of not being believed.There are far too many examples of victims’ claims being rejected by the authorities and victims being told not to follow through on their complaints of abuse, or being accused of lying. With the added pressures around leaving the family home due to lack of funds, many crimes of abusive, coercive and controlling behaviour are unreported and unchallenged.
The impact of the cost-of-living crisis and financial tensions is also being felt in relationships and marriages across the UK. Stowe Family Law’s survey into the impact of the crisis revealed that over half of UK couples’ relationships per cent face challenges due to the cost-of-living crisis.
The survey responses highlighted concerns about 'not enough money coming in' and 'not enough money to pay the bills' are impacting the health of relationships. Furthermore, 20 per cent of couples disagree over where to allocate their money.
Divorce enquiries have seen some of the highest levels on record over the past few months, with September 2022 seeing a 35 per cent increase on September 2021 and 102 per cent up on September 2020. These reflect the Family Court Statistics, which revealed that between April and June of this year, 33,566 divorce applications were made in the UK. This is the most applications the UK has seen in ten years.
Although these figures are shocking, it is unsurprising, given the spiralling uncertainty caused by the financial reality couples are currently facing and likely to continue to face in the coming months. The onset of winter and increasing energy bills may well cause another upsurge in divorce enquiries.
The country has gone through and continues to face, an extremely difficult period, and this can have, unfortunately, a detrimental impact on relationships, particularly if communication is something a couple struggles with at the best of times.
In saying this, there are measures that can be put in place to help support each other and maintain a healthy relationship. While financial tensions can exacerbate existing cracks, there are ways to counteract the impact this is having on a relationship.
Communication is the bedrock of a healthy relationship. Making time to discuss money in the current climate may be more challenging, but talking about finances is essential and can negate future issues.
As family lawyers, we frequently see this issue in divorce proceedings. Money is often the main concern of a large proportion of the population, but ensuring this is talked about sensitively but clearly can help prevent arguments down the line.