So far, in this series examining salient issues surrounding domestic abuse, there has been coverage of some harrowing accounts from victims, the current status of law enforcement, and the challenges facing support services. Although some of it has been inevitably distressing to read, the intention has been to raise general awareness of a matter that blights a large and vulnerable section of the population.
In the final instance, domestic abuse is something that the major political parties of this country should be taking very seriously. Ministers are the ultimate arbiters of lasting change and have the power to deliver legislation that will make a substantial difference in the lives of victims and survivors.
Domestic abuse: what was in the political manifestos?
Given the continued prevalence of domestic abuse, you would expect that the main parties had some mention of it in their 2019 general election manifestos.
The Conservative Party had a short section which opened by clearly stating “delivering justice does not just mean treating defendants fairly, but doing right by victims”. They promised to introduce a Victim’s Law which focuses on rights and guaranteed levels of support. This is presently going through parliament and I will discuss it in the next section. They also promised to introduce the Domestic Abuse Act, which was passed in 2021.
They also pledged increased support for refuges which, as was indicated in the previous article, still needs considerable work. On two of the three points they have delivered what they promised, which is a solid record. However, it is worth noting that the Conservatives have been in power since 2010 and Scotland introduced domestic abuse legislation back in 2018. Why has it taken so long?
It’s worth noting that the Labour Party’s manifesto at the time had significantly more about domestic abuse – perhaps a better reflection of the seriousness of the problem. In it, they promised:
- better police training;
- a commissioner for violence against women and girls;
- establishment of a national refuge fund;
- reintroducing the domestic violence bill;
- prohibiting cross examination by abusers in family courts;
- ratifying the Istanbul Convention (a state-level commitment to ending gender-based violence against women);
- ten days of paid leave for abuse victims; and
- to make misogyny a hate crime.
The point on police training is reminiscent of Valerie’s Law which was mentioned in the third part of this series, so this issue is ongoing. A domestic abuse commissioner has been appointed as a result of the Domestic Abuse Act.
The Liberal Democrats promised the following:
- to ratify the Istanbul Convention;
- a statutory definition of domestic abuse;
- to expand the number of refuges;
- to ensure sustainable grant funding for specialist independent support services;
- more funding for local authorities to provide accommodation for abuse survivors; and
- to prevent direct cross-examination of survivors by their abusers.
The government have since introduced a definition of domestic abuse. However, the other points could still be included in a future manifesto. It will be interesting to see what happens.
A lot of time has passed since the last general election and whilst several things have changed, the scourge of domestic abuse remains. With another general election on the horizon, what are the contenders promising now?
Alex Chalk, the current justice secretary, has proposed Jade’s Law, which strips parental rights away in situations where one parent kills the other – possibly as a result of domestic abuse. At this stage there appears to be very little else, which will be a concern to victims. It is also a concern to the author, based on the issues discovered during the research and writing of this series.
For Labour, things are much more comprehensive. In speaking with Emma Hardy, MP for Hull West & Hessle, she explained that whilst there are no spending commitments due to the situation with the economy, the party has proposals in areas like legal advocacy and advice, as well as the processing of domestic violence cases. Hardy asserts that Labour’s green paper gives a more comprehensive picture:
- A national roll-out of free and independent legal advice and representation.
- A judiciary-lead review into sentences for domestic homicides.
- Statutory defences for victims of domestic abuse who may have been coerced into committing certain crimes, or driven to use force against their abuser.
- Information and training for criminal justice professionals and juries regarding common rape myths and stereotypes.
- Expanded use of specialist domestic violence courts, including enabling the court to monitor offenders in the community.
- Removal of the legal aid means test for domestic abuse survivors.
- Implementing a statutory ‘firewall’ to prevent police forces sharing immigration details of victims.
- A new category for serial domestic abusers and stalkers to be monitored under a multi-agency public protection agreement.
- A duty to commission sufficient specialist domestic abuse services for all victims of domestic abuse.
- Survivors escaping abuse to be given access to the safe, specialist accommodation and support they need.
- Multi-year financial settlements so service providers can plan for the long-term.
- Specific funding streams to support specialist services for migrant, BAME, LGBTQIA+ and disabled victims.
As for the other parties, there isn’t much and that is concerning, particularly as a general election is likely to be held within the next year. The Liberal Democrats promise mandatory training for the police to better understand domestic abuse, but that’s about it so far.
The victims bill
Victims must be protected at all costs. They are the ones who need support. So, the idea of a victims bill is a sound one.
However, it’s important to note that the current version of the bill (called the victims and prisoners bill) is not just related to domestic abuse and concerns have been raised that the addition of the prisoners element dilutes other measures.
In relation to domestic abuse, the bill contains the following:
- A provision to challenge decisions, for example getting the CPS or police to review why their case has been dropped.
- A statutory duty on police, crime commissioners, health and local authorities in England to work together when commissioning support services for victims of sexual violence, domestic abuse and serious violence.
- Statutory guidance on independent sexual violence advisors (ISVAs) and independent domestic violence advisors (IDVAs) setting out minimum expectations and best practice.
Unfortunately, End Violence Against Women coalition notes that there is no protection for migrant survivors and no promise of funding. They also call for records of counselling and therapy sessions to be made confidential.
Time will tell if this bill has any meaningful effect.
A final say
No-one should be forced to live in fear.
If there are personal differences between people in a domestic setting, there should never be a need to resort to violence and psychological abuse.
However, if people are threatened with domestic abuse, there should be a way out and a route to justice.
I hope I have made it clear that we don’t know the true scale of the problem and it’s likely to be much worse that the statistics say. There is a good chance of there being some untold stories which are worse than the ones I have learned about whilst researching this series. Unfortunately, legislative change is slow, the justice system faces severe delays while support services simply don’t get the investment that they need. There are signs of hope though, and I dream, one day, that victims and survivors across the country feel safer and more confident that they can easily access the help and support they need.