In 2017, the Queen’s Speech outlined the Government’s plan to initiate a Domestic Abuse Bill. Unfortunately, after an arduous legislative passage, the Bill was abandoned in November 2019 due to the calling of a General Election. Finally, in March 2020, the Bill was reintroduced to Parliament and is currently making its way, once again, through the legislative process
In light of the devastating effect of COVID-19 on victims of abuse trapped in their homes with their abusers, the passing of this Bill is more important than ever. In fact, the UN have gone as far as to classify the rise in domestic violence cases as a “shadow pandemic”. This begs the question, does this Bill go far enough to protect these victims?
The Bill's key proposals are outlined in the policy paper ‘Domestic Abuse Bill 2020: Overarching Factsheet: You can find this here. Some of the main features of this Bill are:
Victoria Atkins MP, Minister for Safeguarding, declared that:
“Domestic abuse is an abhorrent crime perpetrated on victims and their families by those who should love and care for them. This landmark Bill will help transform the response to domestic abuse, helping to prevent offending, protect victims and ensure they have the support they need.”
However, as several domestic abuse charities have pointed out, the latter two objectives are not being met by the current bill. In my opinion, the Bill possesses three significant flaws:
1) Failure to adopt an intersectional analysis has led to the exclusion of migrant women from the Bill’s ambit.
Arguably, migrant women are some of the most vulnerable in society. Not only are many trapped in abusive relationships, but the precarity of their immigration status means that this abuse is inescapable. Unfortunately, as part of the government’s “hostile environment” approach to immigration, migrant women have no-recourse-to-public funds. In other words, they have no access to publicly funded assistance with welfare such as housing benefit.
As a Trainee Support Worker at a domestic abuse charity, I often come across women in these situations. Without recourse to public funds, these women are unable to escape their abusive relationships since they cannot access housing benefit, making them ineligible for refuge spaces. Furthermore, without access to financial support these women are left to struggle, unable to start over and build a new life for them and their children.
This concern has been raised by Sarah Green, Co-Director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition. She expressed her disappointment, highlighting that “a truly victim-centred Bill would recognise that ALL women who’ve experienced domestic violence should have access to protection and justice, regardless of their immigration status”. She goes on to state that the “limited safety net offered by the government in the Destitution and Domestic Violence Concession is inadequate, as it can only be accessed by some groups of migrant women”.
This goes to the heart of intersectionality. By solely focusing on domestic abuse as a gender-based crime, treating women as a homogenous group, the Bill overlooks other disadvantaging factors such as migrant status. Simply put, the Bill does not go far enough.
2) The Bill fails to acknowledge the seriousness of coercive control.
In 2015, coercive control was criminalised, heralding a huge success for domestic abuse campaigners. Indeed, the Bill proposes to include coercive control within its new statutory definition, indicating its significance.
And yet, as Women’s Aid noted in their ‘Transforming the Response to Domestic Abuse’ consultation paper, this definition fails to acknowledge the adverse effects of coercive control when it is witnessed by children. They note, “although s120 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 extended the concept of significant harm to include impairment suffered by seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another, this does not go far enough. The harm to a child is broader than physical violence and should include sexual abuse and forms of ‘ill-treatment’ that are not physical”.
Indeed, witnessing domestic abuse at home can have detrimental impacts on a child’s mental health. Only when the Domestic Abuse Bill acknowledges coercive control as “harm” to children and classifies these children as “survivors” as opposed to “witnesses” will the Bill be truly supportive of all victims of abuse.
3) The Bill has omitted protection for victims who have committed crimes within the context of their abusive relationship.
Having written my Final Year Research Project on the unsuitability of the criminal law defences to homicide for ‘battered women who kill’, the Domestic Abuse Bill immediately struck me as unhelpful for women who fight back.
When victims try to protect themselves, they often commit a crime. For example, whilst physical abuse may lead to physical retaliation or assault, financial abuse often leads to crimes such as shoplifting in order to obtain food and other essentials. This Bill fails to recognise this reality and does not provide sufficient legal protection to women in these circumstances.
Consequently, the Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ) have called for an extension of the law of self-defence to include victims of domestic abuse acting in self-defence, in the same way that householders defending themselves against an intruder can access the defence. They have also advocated for a new defence, which would mimic the protection offered by the Modern Slavery Act, to allow for victims of abuse who are compelled to offend to be protected.
In summation, this Bill does not go far enough. In order to protect all victims of domestic abuse, this legislation needs to address the above concerns. Nevertheless, it is a step in the right direction. By creating a statutory definition of domestic abuse, the issue will be given the due weight and attention it deserves. However, I urge policy makers to consider this Bill carefully to prevent it becoming nothing more than a missed opportunity.