3 women on whether the government’s new domestic abuse bill goes far enough

A survivor, a legal expert and a campaigner discuss the merits of the government’s ‘landmark’ new legislation. 

Big Little Lies. Love Island. The Archers. In recent years, TV shows and radio programmes have increasingly raised the issue of domestic abuse, highlighting how psychological manipulation and physical violence can creep into a relationship. But while the subject of domestic violence may no longer be as unmentionable as it once was, it’s clear that much more needs to be done to tackle the problem in the UK.

Let’s look at the statistics. Two women are killed every week, on average, by their partner or ex-partner in England and Wales. In the year ending March 2018, 1.3 million women and 695,000 men reported that they had been a victim of domestic abuse. And according to new figures released by the government, domestic abuse costs the UK £66 billion every year. The statistics are shocking – and that’s before we take into account the fact that many survivors of domestic abuse never disclose their experiences, meaning that these numbers are likely underestimated. 

TV shows like Big Little Lies have made domestic abuse an international talking point 

On 21 January 2019, the government unveiled its long-awaited draft domestic abuse bill, containing a raft of laws designed to protect domestic abuse survivors. If the bill is approved by MPs, the legal definition of domestic abuse will be expanded to include economic abuse and control; abusers will be banned from cross-examining their victims in family courts; and new powers will be created to force perpetrators into rehabilitation programmes.

Given that Theresa May has long talked about her commitment to tackling domestic violence – she first promised to overhaul abuse laws almost two years ago – it is perhaps unsurprising that her ministers are describing this bill as a “landmark”. But do the new measures really go far enough to confront the problem of domestic abuse in the UK?

Below, three women with in-depth knowledge of domestic abuse tell Stylist what they think about the bill. 

“This should have been done a long time ago”: the survivor

Euleen suffered from verbal, emotional, financial and physical abuse during a 10-year relationship with her ex, and was hospitalised after he threw a chair at her. Her abuser was subsequently arrested and convicted of GBH and three counts of common assault. Euleen now volunteers at a domestic violence centre in London, and credits Refuge with changing her life. 

The universal credit system has been criticised for making domestic abuse victims more vulnerable 

“I find it a bit frustrating that it’s taken the government so long [to introduce new laws around domestic abuse]. It’s sad to think about the number of women – and men – who have lost their lives because abuse wasn’t recognised.

People didn’t use to think about domestic abuse; they’d say ‘domestic violence’, so everybody thought a person had to be knocked about for it to be serious. But a person can be abused emotionally and mentally, and that can’t be repaired overnight. It tarnishes you. It takes a lot of work to get back on track. You can be left in that deep, dark hole all by yourself. 

Financial abuse will be treated as a form of domestic abuse under the new bill, but I still don’t think the government properly understands it. Under the universal credit system, benefits only go to one claimant in a household – and that claimant may be an abuser. When the abuser gets that money, there’s nothing to say he has to give his partner some of it. He’s in control.

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I think benefits should go to both adults in a household. Then, when a victim finally has the courage to leave, they’ll still have the money they need to survive. I’m not saying it would end financial abuse completely, but it would help.

I don’t know if the government wants praise for dealing with [domestic abuse], but this is something that should have been done a long time ago. And they need to look into the depths of the problem, not just touch the surface. I think they could go further. More education should be provided to staff in the police and the department of work and pensions, because you still come across people who are unsympathetic about your situation. 

You don’t actually want sympathy, you want empathy – but some people just don’t understand. They say, ‘Well, why did you not just leave?’ If it was so easy for us to leave, we would have got up and left a long time ago.”

“We need to see how it will actually be implemented”: the legal expert

Kate Lawrance has worked with survivors of domestic abuse for 17 years. A detective constable in West Yorkshire Police for over a decade, she then became an independent sexual violence adviser (IDVA), before joining Ramsdens Solicitors as a paralegal. She now connects solicitors in the abuse, family and care teams with organisations working with domestic abuse survivors.

Because of cuts to legal aid, many domestic abuse survivors are left to navigate the courts on their own 

“I first realised that the UK’s legislation surrounding domestic abuse wasn’t fit for purpose while working as a detective constable. It didn’t address the areas you’d expect, such as the difference between manipulative and criminal behaviour. As time has progressed, other countries have brought in new laws around domestic violence: in New Zealand, for example, victims are no longer penalised if they can’t work because of abuse. But we haven’t had anything like that in this country.

The government’s new domestic abuse bill may be supportive of victims, but we need to see how it will actually be implemented in the family courts and in solicitors’ day-to-day work with clients. 

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Funding issues also need to be addressed. If you apply for a non-molestation order [aimed at preventing your partner or ex-partner from harassing you or using or threatening violence], it’s obviously easier if you have a solicitor to direct you through the process. But because of cuts to legal aid, we now have many litigants trying to navigate the system themselves. It’s a huge problem, and the domestic abuse bill doesn’t address it.

One thing I would say is hugely important is the fact that economic abuse will now be recognised as a form of coercive control. I worked as an IDVA for several years, supporting victims trying to flee domestic abuse, and would generally have to use a form to identify the level of risk a client was facing. Economic abuse wasn’t really talked about [as a risk factor], but it can prevent women from leaving an abusive relationship and even lead to homicide. So the fact it’s now being incorporated into law is really significant.”

“We’re glad about every step in the right direction”: the charity campaigner

Sandra Horley CBE is the chief executive of Refuge, a charity that provides specialist support for women, children and men experiencing domestic violence. 

A house in London
London renting: it's outrageous and precarious, yet so many of us are still willing to put up with it.

“I’ve been working in the domestic abuse sector for four decades, and change has been very slow. But we’re glad about every step in the right direction. The bill announced by the government represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address domestic abuse, and we’re really pleased to see that it reflects many of the concerns of abuse survivors and those working with them.

We applaud the government for taking action to end cross-examination of victims by perpetrators in the family courts, and we welcome the inclusion of economic abuse in the government’s definition of abuse. We’re also delighted that, alongside the bill, the government will be working on funding options for accommodation [for domestic abuse survivors]. This is really key, as specialist services – including refuges – are essential to saving survivors’ lives.

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But the government must go further and tackle some of the critical problems Refuge staff deal with on a daily basis, such as problems with housing and access to welfare support for survivors fleeing abuse. And if the government’s aim of – to use their words – ‘transforming the response to domestic abuse’ is to be achieved, more investment will be required. The government has to provide funding for services to protect victims.

We also need to ensure that the people who have to implement the bill are trained to deal with the changes, whether it’s the police, prosecution or health professionals. We need to raise awareness of the different forms of abuse, whether it’s physical, psychological, economic or technological. Domestic abuse affects one in four women during their lifetime, women from all walks of life. We also have to challenge the root causes of domestic violence, which are gender inequality and male control over women. A law in itself is a start but it isn’t enough.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, you can find advice and support via the Refuge and Women’s Aid websites, or call the freephone 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247.

Images: Getty Images / HBO