Whilst the chaos of Brexit continues to dominate British politics, a landmark Draft Domestic Abuse Bill was announced by the Government on Monday. Although this Bill was a long time coming – May first promised to make domestic abuse a priority back in February 2017 – it is a necessary change. A 2018 report by the Office for National Statistics recorded that an estimated 2 million adults aged 16-59 had experienced domestic abuse in the last year (of which 1.3 million were women). Yet, only 38 arrests were made for every 100 domestic abuse crimes recorded. The nature of domestic violence and other private crimes does make it hard to ensure prosecution, as it is completely reliant on the victim coming forward. The Draft Domestic Abuse Bill therefore aims to restore the balance between abuser and victim and put the victim at the forefront of its efforts.
The Bill significantly contains the first statutory definition of domestic abuse, which reflects its complex nature, by including economic abuse and non-physical manipulative abuse. Children are also recognised within the bill as victims of domestic abuse. Dr Nicola Sharp-Jeffs, of the charity Surviving Economic Abuse, has praised the Bill for the inclusion of a clear definition as it will ultimately give victims “more confidence when they come forward”. Perhaps most crucially, the Bill will also prohibit the cross-examination of victims by their abusers in family courts – a practice described by Justice Secretary David Gauke as a “continuation of abuse” – and will also provide survivors with special measures to help support them while giving evidence in criminal courts. The Government has also announced plans to commit to investing more funding to those who require additional specialised support such as elderly, disabled or LGBTQ victims of domestic abuse. Meanwhile, the Bill will also require domestic abuse offenders to have polygraph testing following their release from custody and also force others into behaviour-changing rehabilitation programmes. These clear commitments to protect and support victims of domestic abuse have been lauded by Jo Todd, Chief Executive of domestic abuse charity Respect, who viewed these developments as a “once in a generation opportunity”.
This proposed legislation is not without criticism and concern. Principally, the availability of funding and resources to achieve the objectives set out in the Bill are being questioned, especially when the funding for refuges across England, Wales and Scotland has been cut by nearly £7 million over the past eight years. Women’s Aid reported that on just one day in 2017, 94 women and 90 children were turned away from refuges. The successful implementation of this legislation will require further resources (especially as these reforms are likely to result in an increase in the number of victims who choose to speak out). Inconsistency of provision is a criticism that can be shared by many, if not all, governmental departments. However, a Telegraph article highlighted that the Government only spent £724 million on victims’ services last year. When compared to the staggering £66 billion the Home Office estimates that domestic abuse costs England and Wales a year, surely investment is wholly justified and necessary.
In spite of this, the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill can be viewed as a fundamental step in the right direction and a beacon of hope for many in helping to protect and support victims of domestic abuse.