Domestic abuse is one of the most prevalent crimes in England and Wales, accounting for 33% of violent crime recorded by the police in the year to March 2018.
The introduction of a new bill to protect victims was part of the Conservative Party’s 2017 manifesto. After a three-month public consultation in 2018, the government published its draft Domestic Abuse Bill on January 21 2019.
The draft bill puts a greater focus on children, the diverse identities of victims and on interventions for perpetrators of domestic abuse. It creates an assumption that domestic abuse victims will be automatically be eligible for special measures in court – such as giving evidence behind a screen, via live link or video-recorded interview, or in private. It also prohibits domestic abuse perpetrators from cross-examining their victims in family courts.
The proposed legal changes will create a new statutory definition of domestic abuse which includes economic abuse, and establish a domestic abuse commissioner.
The bill will also reform the system for serving protection orders against domestic abuse perpetrators, and provide a statutory footing for an existing scheme, known as Clare’s Law, that allows people to request information on whether their partner has a history of domestic violence. The law is named after Clare Brown, who was murdered by her former partner.
Protection orders strengthened
A proposed new Domestic Abuse Protection Order (DAPO) will be easier to obtain through a variety of courts than the current eviction and protection orders, and will allow authorities to impose requirements on a perpetrator to protect the victim. These requirements may be prohibitive, such as restricting movement or communication, or positive, for example requiring the perpetrator to participate in a treatment programme.
Information held on the perpetrator as part of the DAPO will range from their name and address through to new relationships, visa applications and firearms licences. Electronic monitoring may also feature where a court deems it necessary to protect the victim.
Victims’ wishes will now be considered if a DAPO is breached, for example if a perpetrator misses an anger management programme, or contacts a victim. Such breaches will either be treated – as they are now – as a civil offence and punished by two months in prison, or as a criminal offence, penalised by up to five years in prison. The extra flexibility is to avoid victims being reticent about reporting a breach due to the much harsher penalty.
Improving access to information
Under the Clare’s Law scheme, or Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme which was rolled out nationally in 2014, victims or potential victims can obtain information via two different routes. One is the “right to ask”, through which members of the public proactively request information, and the second is the “right to know” where the police initiate a disclosure on safeguarding grounds. Discrepancies that I’ve identified in my research between these two routes in terms of access, support and the amount of information provided, are likely to remain unaffected by the draft bill.
Approximately a third of respondents to the government’s consultation on the bill hadn’t heard of the DVDS or Clare’s Law, despite the fact that two-thirds were victims.
The new statutory footing for the DVDS means that a duty will be placed on the police to have regard for the scheme’s guidance. But this remains quite woolly, and it’s not yet clear what kind of penalty the police would face for not following the guidance.
The DVDS doesn’t give people the right to a disclosure. Instead, a threshold of credible risk of violence or harm must be determined by a multi-agency team before information that would otherwise be considered private can be shared with a member of the public on safeguarding grounds.
Inconsistencies surrounding the use of the scheme have been identified nationally across police forces and among applicants. Coupled with the low volume of disclosures, this means more public awareness is needed about how the DVDS operates.
Not all victims of domestic abuse may recognise the seriousness or severity of the behaviour a partner is demonstrating. If the information they provide on the nature of their partner’s behaviour as part of a “right to ask” DVDS application does not meet the risk threshold, then their application will be rejected. As the draft bill proposes that online DVDS applications should be made easier, it’s vital that online applicants know to provide as much detail as possible. This can be promoted alongside improving the DVDS’s visibility and uptake, which 32% of respondents to the consultation suggested be done via social media.
The changes outlined in the draft bill indicate that the government is listening to domestic abuse victims, advocates and experts. The key will be whether or not these proposals can be sufficiently implemented, as they require a significant amount of ongoing funding and investment across public services and the voluntary sector.