Domestic abuse act: what it actually means for women in the UK

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Hollie Richardson
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Woman campaigning against violence

Four years after its introduction to parliament, the new domestic abuse bill has just received royal assent – but what does the landmark legislation really mean for women in the UK?

Yesterday, (29 April), the domestic abuse bill passed both Houses of Parliament and was finally signed into law.  First introduced by Theresa May’s government in 2019, the passing of a new version of the bill has been delayed for various reasons – at one point, Boris Johnson even dropped the landmark piece of legislation. But, following a year that has seen an increase of domestic abuse reports during the pandemic, the bill has now received royal assent and is the domestic abuse act.

So, what exactly does this mean for women in the UK? And how will it help them?

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The government says the domestic abuse act will provide further protections to the millions of people who experience domestic abuse and strengthen measures to tackle perpetrators.  

Key changes in the domestic abuse act:

  • For the first time in history there will be a wide-ranging legal definition of domestic abuse, incorporating a range of abuses beyond physical violence, such as emotional, coercive or controlling behaviour, and economic abuse.  
  • Important new protections and support for victims will help ensure that abusers will no longer be allowed to directly cross-examine their victims in the family and civil courts, and they give victims better access to special measures in the courtroom to help prevent intimidation – such as protective screens and giving evidence via video link. 
  • Police will be given new powers, including Domestic Abuse Protection Notices that provide victims with immediate protection from abusers. Courts will also be able to hand out new Domestic Abuse Protection Orders to help prevent offending by forcing perpetrators to take steps to change their behaviour, including seeking mental health support or drug and alcohol rehabilitation.
  • It cements the government’s commitment to a legal duty to fund emergency accommodation refuges. 

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In recent weeks, the government has also added new measures to the bill to further strengthen the law, including creating a new offence of non-fatal strangulation, extending an offence to cover the threat to disclose intimate images, and clarifying the law to further clamp down on claims of  ‘rough sex gone wrong’ in cases involving death or serious injury. 

How have campaigners reacted to the domestic abuse act?

Domestic violence charity Refuge has said it is delighted by progressive provisions in the Act but disappointed by key omissions – the failure to protect migrant women and to amend aspects of the Universal Credit system that facilitates and exacerbates economic abuse. It added that the commitment to make available many more emergency beds must be met with adequate funding, arguing that the £125 million pledged “falls way short” of the estimated £174 million pounds needed to ensure funding matches need.

“Refuge is delighted that the domestic abuse bill has completed the parliamentary process and has been signed into law with royal assent,” said Ruth Davison, Refuge chief executive. “However, Refuge is concerned that the Act fails to ensure protection and support is available for all migrant women and address the aspects of the Universal Credit system that facilitates and exacerbates economic abuse, namely the single household payment and five-week delay.”

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She added: “This is a missed opportunity to ensure all women experiencing abuse are protected and we hope the government will move swiftly to rectify this. Refuge stands ready to work with the government both in ensuring all aspects of the Act are implemented effectively and without delay as well as implement these other vital changes, to ensure all women are protected and able to access support.

“Refuge also calls on the government to ensure that the legal duty to fund refuges is met with adequate ring-fenced funding, which matches need. Only then will frontline services be able to step away from the funding cliff edge they so often find themselves on, and ensure no woman or child is turned away from accessing specialist support.”

Mandu Reid, leader of the Women’s Equality Party, responded by tweeting: “The #domesticabusebill has been signed into law. Huge respect and kudos to the campaigners who worked relentlessly to get us to this milestone.

“It WILL make a difference. But the struggle will continue until the gaps in this bill are attended to.”

She continued: “To the shame of our government, as it stands, the bill still leaves migrant women stranded and doesn’t guarantee statutory funding for domestic abuse services. The opportunity was also missed to create a register for repeat perpetrators.

“In the four years since the bill was first promised, millions of lives have been ruined by or lost to domestic abuse. We must keep the pressure up to protect the most marginalised and address the inequality that causes and perpetuates one of the most prevalent crimes in Britain.”

The domestic abuse commissioner, Nicole Jacobs, said:   “Today marks an historic moment for victims and survivors of domestic abuse when change is needed the most.  The act sets out my legal powers, which I will use to support all victims across England and Wales by first tackling the ‘postcode lottery’ of services.  

“So many campaigners, charities and individuals have worked incredibly hard to make the bill as robust as possible and there is no doubt that the legislation, which now includes non-fatal strangulation as a standalone offence, is much stronger as a result. Legislation won’t transform things overnight and we know there is more to do, and so I will work with partners to advocate for further changes.”

Find more information on the domestic abuse bill on the government’s official website. 

For more help and support, you can also seek confidential support with Relate or contact Refuge for help and guidance. Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline is free to call and available 24/7 on 0808 2000 247.

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Hollie Richardson

Hollie is a digital writer at Stylist.co.uk, mainly covering the daily news on women’s issues, politics, celebrities and entertainment. She also keeps an ear out for the best podcast episodes to share with readers. Oh, and don’t even get her started on Outlander…