The Domestic Abuse Bill passed both Houses of Parliament and was signed into law on 29th April 2021. The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 (‘the Act’) is set to provide further protections to the millions of people who experience domestic abuse, as well as strengthen measures to bring perpetrators of domestic abuse to justice.
The Act will undoubtedly have a big impact in family law proceedings as it will provide a welcomed and necessary change to the way that victims of domestic abuse are treated at court.
What does the Act do?
For the first time the Act creates a statutory definition of domestic abuse, emphasising that domestic abuse is not just physical violence, but also emotional, coercive or controlling and financial abuse. As part of this definition, children will also be recognised as victims if they see, hear or otherwise experience the effects of domestic abuse.
The Act creates a new offence of non-fatal strangulation, which carries a sentence of 5 years imprisonment.
It extends the controlling or coercive behaviour offence to cover post-separation abuse, to protect those who are still being subjected to domestic abuse following separation.
The Act extends the “revenge porn” offence to cover the threat to disclose intimate images with the intention to cause distress.
It clarifies the law to further deter claims of “rough sex gone wrong” in cases involving death or serious injury.
The Act creates a statutory presumption that victims of domestic abuse are eligible for special measures in the criminal, civil and family courts (for example, a protective screen or separate suite may be available at the court for victims of domestic abuse). S.64 of the Act creates a presumption where a party or witness is, or is at risk of being, a victim of domestic abuse from a member of their family or a witness or party in the proceedings, that the quality of their evidence and/or their participation as a party is likely to be diminished by reason of vulnerability. If this is the case, it may be that special measures, such as screens or video link, may protect the victim from being subject to further abuse from the perpetrator.
Importantly, the Act places a duty on Local Authorities in England to provide support to victims of domestic abuse and their children in refuges and other safe accommodation.
It prohibits GPs and other health professionals from charging a victim of domestic abuse for a letter to support an application for Legal Aid.
How will the Act strengthen measures to tackle perpetrators in family law proceedings?
The Domestic Abuse Act will prohibit perpetrators of abuse from cross-examining their victims in person in family and civil courts in England and Wales;
The Act brings the case of R v Brown into legislation, which invalidates any courtroom defence of consent where a victim suffers serious harm or is killed;
It provides for a new Domestic Abuse Protection Notice and Domestic Abuse Protection Order, which will prevent perpetrators from contacting their victims, as well as force them to take positive steps to change their behaviour, such as seeking mental health support
Significantly for family law practitioners, the Act will enable the Family Courts to provide enhanced protections for victims of domestic abuse and local authorities will be able to fund support in safe accommodation.
However, notably, the Act does not include a specific stalkers’ register, despite briefings from the government after the tragic death of Sarah Everard that it was likely to support such a measure. Farah Nazeer, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid Federation of England said “thanks to the bravery of survivors in campaigning for change, we now have an act that will strengthen protection in the family courts, improve housing law in cases of domestic abuse, and require councils to fund support in safe accommodation.” Although the Act does not address every specific situation, it goes a long way to offer long-awaited protections for victims of domestic abuse in England.
At Burnetts, we have a team of approachable and understanding lawyers who are experienced in dealing with victims of domestic abuse. We aim to respond to enquiries within 2 – 3 hours within working hours. It is important that you obtain independent legal advice if your case involves domestic abuse. If findings of abuse or violence are made then they could have long-term effects.