Thursday, May 21st, 2020
Social distancing was implemented to save lives, but what about people for whom home is not safe? Victims of domestic abuse not only face increased exposure to their often-violent abusers but are also simultaneously experiencing social isolation from friends, family and colleagues. Abusers frequently seek to isolate victims from their families and support networks, so the current rules play into the abuser’s hands. Abusers can prolong and worsen the impact of their abuse as victims currently feel there is no one there to help.
It is no surprise then that, since lockdown has been in effect, domestic abuse cases have surged. The National Domestic Abuse Helpline has seen a 49% increase in calls, Men’s Advice Line a 35% increase and the Metropolitan Police have reported a 24% increase in charges and cautions for domestic abuse.
Even if domestic abuse sufferers are able to access support services whilst under constant surveillance from their abuser, there are significant difficulties faced by a sector that, like most others, are affected by staff and volunteers having to self-isolate and work remotely. This is on top of years of underfunding from the government for these vital services.
In positive news, the Domestic Abuse Bill is finally due to receive a second reading last week, having been further delayed by the prorogation of parliament in November of last year. Women’s Aid have welcomed the bill for providing the first statutory definition of domestic abuse. This includes coercive control, emotional and economic abuse, as well as physical violence. The charity, however, believe it does not go far enough to make the family courts truly safe for women and children.
Whilst the court’s approach to domestic abuse has improved over the last few years, there remains significant advances to be made. The case involving Judge Tolson QC, for example, was made public by Women’s Aid last year. The family court judge dismissed an allegation of rape as the victim had done ‘nothing physically’ to stop him. Thankfully, the family courts have sought to remedy this swiftly and training has now been ordered on the issue.
One area the family courts generally succeeded in was that of Non-Molestation Orders, or injunctions as they were previously known, which provide a useful protection for victims of domestic abuse. These can be applied for urgently without notice to the other party and provide an order to prevent the abuser from using or threatening violence. Importantly, they also can provide protection from more subtle harassment or any direct communication. Moreover, they are flexible, so have the capacity to incorporate case-specific issues such as damage to property or harassment on social media. As the order is enforceable from when it is served, a victim is protected from the moment their abuser knows they have obtained an order. The court also have the power to make Occupation Orders to exclude someone’s right to occupy a property. These are again a very useful order to provide the victim and any children with some real protection from the threat of abuse.
Lockdown, however, has now provided a series of practical impediments to seeking this protection. Previously, these without notice hearings were always attended in person, given the gravity of the order sought. The family courts are struggling to adapt to fully remote working and the response to hearings seems to vary from court to court about whether remote hearings could be conducted. There are also further hurdles to be considered, such as how to arrange the personal service of the orders once obtained and how an abuser can be excluded from a property during the restrictions of lockdown. This is why expert legal advice is essential during this difficult time.
Fortunately, the Legal Aid Agency have relaxed their rules for domestic abuse evidence to obtain public funding and have brought in procedures for how legal aid applications can be signed in the absence of physical signatures. Hanne & Co have a long history of providing legal aid to the local community and have had a specialist domestic abuse team in place for some time. We respond to and obtain Non-Molestation orders on an urgent basis, continuing to do so during the current health crisis. We have a strong working relationship with the local family courts and have ensured we are up-to-date with the process for the new remote applications.
If you need any assistance in this difficult time about your options please contact us on 020 7228 0017 to speak with our specialist domestic abuse team who will be happy to assist. They can also be reached on email@example.com or through our Live chat function if you are unable to call.
Women’s Aid Domestic Violence Helpline: 0808 2000 247
Men’s Advice line: 0808 8010 327
In an emergency contact 999 or if you are unable to talk then press 55 (only on mobiles) to seek help.
Elinor Feeny is a Senior Associate in the Family & Divorce Team and a Resolution accredited specialist in domestic abuse cases.