Originally introduced in parliament in 2017, the Domestic Abuse Bill was postponed first because of Brexit, then the pandemic. Now it has finally gained momentum. For women’s rights activists, the much anticipated Domestic Abuse Bill making its way through parliament is a landmark moment. Its overreaching aim as laid out by Victoria Atkins, MP for Safeguarding, is to raise awareness of the ‘devastating impact of domestic abuse on victims and their families’. The idea is to give women statutory protection which would in turn improve the effectiveness of the justice system. The Bill also seeks to make it a safer environment for women to share their experiences, and indeed, feel not only that they are believed, but also that the abuse will no longer go unpunished. While this may be the case, the aim of this article is to shed light on some shortcomings of the Bill, particularly in terms of potential beneficiaries.
The purpose and aims of the Bill
To give a statutory definition of domestic abuse will go some way in deepening the understanding that the phenomenon can take many different forms – physical, emotional, economic or coercive. Domestic abuse has risen in recent years, with some 2.4 million victims being recorded every year, two thirds of which are women. But what about those cases which go unreported? Domestic abuse is still grossly underreported and recent data shows that only about 18% of women who experience abuse report it to the police. It must be remembered that domestic abuse does not need to be physical, and ought to be placed in the context of fear and intimidation, which also amounts to abusive behaviour. Indeed, the Bill seeks to include such behaviour in a solidified statutory definition.
The Bill also seeks to remove the defence of consent to “rough sex”, often a disguise for abusive behaviour which often allowed perpetrators to get off with lighter sentences. Concerns associated with this defence were especially prominent after the death of Grace Millane in 2018. Perhaps, even more significantly, preparators will no longer be able to cross-examine the victims in a family court, ensuring that women do not have to relive the fear.
The lack of protection for non-UK nationals
Although the Bill has received support in the Commons, a point of contention continues to be the protection which ought to be afforded to victims with no recourse to public funding (NRPF). Services led ”by and for” migrant women have voiced their concerns over the failure of the Bill to account for BME and migrant women. An intersectional approach needs to be taken to understand how the experiences of these women are only made more difficult by the fear that reporting may lead to deportation.
For those residing in the UK on spouse visa, the fear is heightened – reporting could lead to their partners revoking the visa. The new Bill should ensure at least some efforts are taken to protect migrant women living in the UK, or else, these women will only be further discouraged from reporting abuse to authorities, something which could have dramatic consequences.
As is discussed in the minutes published by parliament at the beginning of this month, women with NRPF will have to make a dire choice between remaining with the perpetrator and the ‘prospect of homelessness or destitution’. To make the Bill more inclusive, ministers should ensure it includes ‘safe reporting mechanisms’ enabling women to be seen first as victims, rather than risk being questioned about their immigration status. If this Bill is there to protect all women, Baroness Lister of Burtersett notes that it must ensure migrant women are not denied assistance based on their immigration status. Migrant women must have access to support and services. But getting rid of NRPF would mean amending immigration law, something which is up to the ministers alone.
Placing the Bill in context – domestic abuse and the COVID19 pandemic
Restrictions on movement brought by the three national lockdowns have made domestic abuse rapidly increase. Since the start of these restrictions, at least 26 women have been killed by their perpetrators in the UK, reported The New York Times. During the first lockdown, domestic abuse charities in the UK saw an increase of 50% in calls to their helplines.
Lockdowns bring about a ‘pressure-cooker effect of being trapped indoors’ with perpetrators, with life becoming increasingly difficult for women. The Domestic Abuse Bill could not come at a more crucial time, and everything must be done to ensure it goes right.
Some final observations
Overall, the aim of the Bill is good – it seeks to solidify women’s rights and the importance of this Bill should not be overshadowed by its limitations. It is, after all, a significant step in the right direction. Nonetheless, for the Bill to be truly transformative, it ought to ensure protection for all women, regardless of their immigration status. All services and support must be available ‘without discrimination or danger’ for the victims involved – as per the Istanbul Convention to which the UK is a signatory.
With the Committee stage set to continue throughout the final days of January and going into the month of February, one can only hope the ministers will put their concerns into action and allow this Bill to be truly life-changing for all victims of domestic abuse.