The Domestic Abuse Act 2021: According to the most recent Crime Survey for England and Wales, the police recorded over 1,288,000 domestic abuse-related incidents in the year ending March 2020. Against this backdrop, another startling statistic is that on average two women a week are killed by a current or former partner in England and Wales alone. 

The Domestic Abuse Act 2021

The long-awaited Domestic Abuse Act 2021 (the “Act”) has received Royal Assent and has been lauded for marking a vital step-up in the way we tackle domestic abuse. 

There were numerous delays before the Act finally became law, but its timing was nevertheless pertinent given the reported rise in domestic abuse due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In January 2021, Women’s Aid reported that some domestic abusers were using the lockdown rules to intensify or conceal violence, coercion and control. In March 2021, Refuge, which runs the national domestic abuse helpline, reported a 61% increase in calls logged over the previous year during the pandemic. 

Amongst its many effects, the Act introduced, for the first time, a clear legal definition of domestic abuse, expanding the concept so not only physical violence can count as domestic abuse. Now that the Act is law, the new definition also includes psychological, emotional and economic abuse, threatening behaviour and coercive control.

Coercive control became illegal in 2015 and, since September 2020, learning about it is now compulsory in England’s schools. However, whilst the concept of coercive control is still relatively unknown to many, its prevalence in modern society, and subsequently family law proceedings, is ever-increasing. The offence of “controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship” can comprise of a single act or a pattern of behaviour used to harm, punish or frighten the victim. Coercive control is no longer limited to incidents taking place during the period of the relationship meaning post separation behaviour is also relevant.

It tends mainly to be prosecuted alongside other offences like domestic violence, but there are more individual cases based generally upon coercive control which are starting to make it to court, particularly within the family courts. The Resolution Annual Report 2020, published on 16 June 2021, alluded to the stark rise. The report stated that an amendment to the Act was secured so that victims of domestic abuse and/or coercive control will now be automatically eligible for access to special measures in family proceedings, without the need for any determination of the victim’s vulnerability.

Cause for optimism?

The Act was heralded as a legislative milestone. However, a range of proposed reforms were left out of the final version and, despite the series of headline amendments, a number of them are not as extensive as they were originally intended. Consequently, the Act is not as trail-blazing as was hoped by many people. Time will tell whether or not the Act will have the desired effect of safeguarding those who are victimised by domestic abuse. It is clear, however, that the Act’s powers will surely be put to the test with the continual rise in domestic abuse cases.

How the family court can help

For anyone who believes themselves or someone close to them to be a victim of domestic abuse, there are various options available to help them. Amongst those options, the family court can assist through a series of applications designed to protect the victim and potentially their children through injunction proceedings, known as non-molestation and occupation orders. 

Written by Peter Morris

October 10, 2022

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