Yesterday – and two years after it was first announced – the government finally revealed their draft bill aiming to tackle domestic abuse head on. The proposed changes to the law introduce a number of long-awaited and welcome policies, and are published alongside the news that domestic abuse cost England and Wales a total of £66bn in 2016/17 – a staggering amount in anyone’s books.
However, some charities, such as Women’s Aid, have claimed the government are not allocating enough spending in order to put some of the important legislation into action, and some activists believe the most vulnerable women – migrants, BAME women, members of the LGBTQ+ community – aren’t being offered the increased protection they need.
So, what are the proposals in the government’s draft bill? What happens to the bill next? And is there room for improvement? Here’s everything you need to know:
Economic abuse will finally be recognised as domestic abuse
The definition of domestic abuse will be updated to include incidents of a partner controlling or restricting access to a victim’s financial or economic resources. This means economic abusers will be able to be charged with the distinct crime and suitably punished alongside other types of domestic abuse, eg physical or emotional. Police, as well as banks and other financial institutions, will be given specialist training on how to recognise economic abuse, and how to support suspected victims. Unfortunately for the government, this recognition of economic abuse throws its Universal Credit scheme into question, once again, as many campaigners have said the funnelling of benefits into just one bank account enables the controlling of a partner’s finances.
The way domestic-abuse cases are handled in court will change
One of the more encouraging proposals in the draft bill will see victims of domestic abuse spared from cross-examination by their abusers in family court. What’s more, victims will also be automatically eligible for the use of special measures when testifying in criminal courts– giving them greater protection against their abuser.
High-risk domestic-abuse offenders might have to take a polygraph test on their conditional release – though there is little information in the bill as to why, or what powers the police will be granted in terms of the results
Perpetrators could face further restrictions on release
Those found guilty of domestic abuse might be subject to the extended powers of a Domestic Abuse Protection Order (DAPO). As well as stopping an abuser from contacting their victim and visiting certain addresses, a DAPO can also require their attendance at rehabilitation programmes, be it for alcohol or drug addictions, or for behavioural problems. High-risk domestic-abuse offenders might also have to take a polygraph test on their conditional release – though there is little information in the bill as to why, or what powers the police will be granted in terms of the results.
Clare’s Law will be elevated to statutory status
Officially referred to as the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme, Clare’s Law allows people to find out whether their partner – or a partner of someone they are concerned about – has a criminal history of domestic violence. It’s a scheme that has been in place since 2014, but until now police have been able to refuse to provide the relevant information – a decision that will be harder to make, now the official guidance will be held to the standards of a statutory law.
Further funding to protect victims of domestic abuse will be put in place
While the amount of annual funding (£1.1m) provided to seven helplines will stay the same, other areas of victim protection will receive relatively small increases. Five-hundred thousand pounds will be provided as a “crisis” safety net for victims of domestic violence who cannot rely on public funds – e.g. the homeless – while the same amount will be given to the charitable sector to support the overwhelming number of LGBTQ+ victims of domestic abuse. At this stage, however, it has not been announced which charities will benefit from the funding. It’s the same story for extra funding for elderly, disabled and BAME victims – while the money has been allocated, we still do not know where and how it will be distributed. All these changes will be overseen by a new Domestic Abuse Commissioner, whose job it will be to ensure the new laws are being implemented properly and effectively.
There are a lot of good things in the government’s draft bill, which should, of course, be celebrated. But we also cannot shy away from questioning the economic and practical capabilities of the new laws – especially when more and more services are closing due to budget cuts, leading to more and more women being turned away from desperately needed shelters. This draft bill is a step in the right direction, but we have already waited two years too long for it to appear. For the sake of everyone suffering domestic abuse, and those at risk, we cannot afford to wait much longer.
For confidential support, call the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Freephone Helpline on 0808 2000 247 or visit womansaid.co.uk
If you or your family have lost a friend or family member through fatal domestic abuse, AAFDA (Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse) can offer specialist and expert support and advocacy, for more info visit www.aafda.org.uk