The UK Domestic Abuse Act

Receiving royal assent in April 2021, the Domestic Abuse Bill has been heralded as ‘landmark’ legislation by the UK government [1]. From the late seventies, consensus revealed an emerging concern for domestic abuse and violence against women, with the creation of the first Rape Crisis Centres in 1972 and legislation beginning to reflect this [2]. The importance of these developments in modern policymaking and legislation marks a recognition of decades of rising violence against women and the required growth of support services. Undoubtedly, pressure has mounted on the government to increase accessibility to services for domestic abuse from survivors, campaigners, charities and political actors, such as Jess Phillips MP. The development of policy and legislation protecting victims of domestic abuse and violence shows a huge step has been taken to bridge the gap in public knowledge, prosecution and understanding of what domestic abuse means in the twenty-first century.


Various pieces of legislation have led us to the implementation of the Domestic Abuse Bill 2021, besides campaigning and activism. Evidence of gender-based laws appear as early as the nineteenth century, for example the Criminal Procedure Act 1853 and the Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act 1976, which protected rights relating to the occupation of the matrimonial home and injunctions. In 2015, the Serious Crimes Act allowed for coercive control and behaviour specifically to be held to account [3], a shift from a broad focus solely on domestic violence in the law. Furthermore, it was to be recognised as an international issue within Europe, and so the Istanbul Convention 2011 was drafted and ratified in 2011 by the Council of Europe to coordinate the effort to combat domestic abuse and violence against women across the European Union. It was clear that awareness of the seriousness of these crimes was growing.


Contributing to the Domestic Abuse Bill 2021 was the consultation published in 2019 by the government titled ‘Transforming the Response to Domestic Abuse’ [4]. Delivered by Sajid Javid MP and David Gauke MP, the consultation received over 3,200 responses and ran for 12 weeks, beginning on International Women’s Day 2018 [5]. The consultation aimed primarily to ‘harness the knowledge and expertise of victims and survivors’ [6], with the hope to transform how services aid and assist those experiencing domestic abuse in a variety of forms. There were four key areas that were identified for improvement, making it clear that respondents’ experiences and input were integral to the policy making process. These included promoting awareness, better protecting and supporting, transforming the justice process and improving performance [7]. The amendments have been curated to reflect how victims feel, experience abuse and want to proceed beyond the incident, with a focus on nine key areas that required legislative change. Examples of these key areas include:

  • Provide for a statutory definition of domestic abuse.

  • Ensure that, where a local authority, for reasons connected with domestic abuse, grants a new secure tenancy to a social tenant who had or has a secure lifetime or assured tenancy (other than an assured shorthold tenancy), this must be a secure lifetime tenancy.

  • Establish the office of Domestic Abuse Commissioner and set out the Commissioner’s functions and powers. [8]

By undertaking grass-roots research, this provided genuine reaction to proposed elements of the bill.


Several key policies have been introduced in line with a shift in abuse patterns. Part 6 of the Act enshrines reflective policies to tackle major domestic abuse issues that have only been recognised in recent years due to lack of understanding of what domestic abuse means, including the growth of technology and social media as a means of abuse and distress. Under sections 68 and 69, the perpetrator will be held accountable for ‘controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship’ and ‘threats to disclose private sexual photographs and films with intent to cause distress’, respectively. These amendments match increasing numbers of ‘revenge porn’ reports [9] and so extends to ‘threats’ of this nature, whilst section 68 widened the scope of coercive and controlling behaviour and reaffirms the implementation of section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 under the same name. The consultation found that respondents said that ‘too often people ignore what is abuse, merely saying it can only be abuse if violence is involved’ [10]. This prompted a greater scope for what domestic abuse entails - including coercive non-violent behaviour, as well as economic abuse. Though criminalised by 2015, the understanding of coercive control as a standalone practice to abuse a partner is becoming more widespread. Similarly, section 75A and 75B criminalise the use of ‘non-fatal strangulation or suffocation’ - a practice commonly used by perpetrators to abuse victims with no visible evidence.


Despite the undeniable progress made by this legislation, there is still a long way to go for women’s rights against domestic violence. Due to the clandestine nature of these offences, it is likely that any data could be widely underestimated, and the problem is in fact much more concerning. It can only be hoped that this development encourages more victims to seek assistance and that these amendments only make that process easier.



Written by Harriet Campbell

 

References:

[1] GOV.UK, New laws to protect victims added to Domestic Abuse Bill.

[2] Godfrey B., Richardson, J., and Walklate, S. (2020) Domestic Abuse in England and Wales 1770-2020. Working Paper No. 2. Domestic Abuse: Responding to the Shadow Pandemic. University of Liverpool. July.

[3] Serious Crimes Act 2015, s76

[4,5,6,7,8], [10] HM Government, Transforming the Response to Domestic Abuse Consultation Response and Draft Bill January 2019

[9] The Guardian, UK's revenge porn helpline registers busiest year on record.