In the midst of ongoing Brexit negotiations, Theresa May’s government has set time aside to publish a draft bill today, after almost two years of promises to change and tighten the law on domestic abuse.

The law surrounding domestic abuse has long since been described by practitioners as antiquated and not fit for purpose with today’s generation. The intended new law shall for the first time create a legal definition of domestic abuse, to include economic abuse and control.

All too often the media reports on yet another case of haunting and horrifying domestic abuse with devastating results. The aim of the new law is to protect those most vulnerable and provide a working framework to enable victims to have fair legal proceedings.

Minister for Crime, Safeguarding and Vulnerability, Victoria Atkins, said of the law: “I have heard absolutely heart-breaking accounts of victims whose lives have been ripped apart because of the physical, emotional or economic abuse they have suffered by someone close to them. The draft domestic abuse bill recognises the complex nature of these horrific crimes and puts the needs of victims and their families at the forefront.”

In summary, the draft bill includes the first legal definition of domestic abuse, the appointment of a commissioner dedicated to tackling the issue and new protection orders to force perpetrators to attend rehabilitation programmes where substance abuse is a factor, or behaviour change programmes.

New analysis concluded throughout the bill preparation has found that the estimated social cost of domestic abuse between 2016 – 2017 was in the region of £66 billion. This estimate calculates the costs of protective and preventative measures as a consequence of abuse. Not only will tightened controls aim to reduce the devastating effects to victims, but also to reign in extra-economical spending on the consequences.

Sarah Green, co-director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, said: “The ambition and determination in the government’s announcement of the new bill is very welcome, given the devastation this abuse causes.

However, if law, policy and spending really are to be radically changed in this area, it is absolutely critical that there is clear recognition that domestic violence very disproportionately affects women. This is not to say that men are not also sometimes victimised, but women’s inequality is part of what drives some men’s sense that they are entitled to bully and control in their relationships.”

The legislation will also prohibit alleged abusers from cross-examining their victims in family courts. Justice Secretary, David Gauke, is quoted to understand that being cross-examined by a perpetrator can cause “immense distress and amount to a continuation of abuse“.

The domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid have reported to the government about the ‘abhorrent practice’ that abusers continued to fault the safe practices of the family court and cross-examine their victims, despite their efforts within the Prisons and Courts Bill 2017. The restriction of domestic abusers cross-examining their victims in the family court had initially been drafted into the 2017 bill, however the general election called in that year unfortunately held up the much needed revamp.

A government official said: “We will legislate to ban the unacceptable practice of abusers cross-examining their victims in the family court as soon as possible. The law is clear that the child’s welfare is paramount, and it is for judges to determine what is best for the child after careful consideration of the facts in each case.”

The continuing issue was dealt practically by the family Courts with the introduction of Practice Direction 12J under the Family Procedure Rules. The former President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby sought to remedy the lack of legislative control through the practice rules setting out how family proceedings should be conducted where there is an allegation of domestic abuse and or harm.

Practice Direction 12J sought primarily to lead practitioners into the future and establish clearer guidance as to the definitions of domestic abuse. The rules establish key definitions for terms such as ‘domestic abuse, abandonment, coercive behaviour, controlling behaviour, development, health, and ill-treatment’. As can be seen throughout the government’s consultation and reports from leading charities, the rules do not go so far as to limit, in every circumstance, a victim enduring the interrogation of cross-examination.

Katie Ghose, the chief executive of Women’s Aid, said the government needed to end the ongoing practice.

For far too long, survivors have endured continued abuse at the hands of their abuser in the family courts”. “Enough is enough. We want to see the family courts protect survivors during the court process and ensure that survivors are able to access their right to a fair and just legal process. We know that perpetrators of domestic abuse are using the family courts to continue to control and abuse victims, and that the family courts’ failure to consistently safeguard survivors and apply fairness during the court process is enabling that abuse.”

The bill will not only deal with technical Court matters, but will look to manage the way in which other non-legislative procedures become statute.

The draft bill sets to bring ‘Clare’s law’ into a legislative reality. Currently the scheme initiated by the coalition government in 2014 provides everyone the right to ask the police if their partner poses a risk to them and to be provided with that information. The Disclosure Scheme came about after a landmark domestic abuse case in 2009 when George Appleton murdered his ex-girlfriend Clare Wood. Clare had made several complaints to police about her former boyfriend, who had a history of domestic violence towards other women however, the disclosure process prevented Clare from learning about his history.

Domestic abuse causes many other concealed impacts to all involved including the lives of children, damaged by what they experience. The Domestic Abuse Bill is one step in the right direction to stamping out large scale domestic abuse and providing victims with clear guidance as to their rights in a more humane way.

Theresa May’s government launched a consultation into domestic abuse last year that drew responses from more than 3,200 people. It is estimated that about two million adults experience domestic abuse each year. What may surprise some is that, In the recent survey there were 695,000 male victims. Often stories about male victims of domestic abuse go unheard but, in practice are more common than many think.

If you would like to speak to a member of the team regarding any of the issues raised in this article, or any other family law matter please feel free to contact: Chris Burns, who is the head of our family law department; Sophie Arrowsmith a member of our team in the Leeds office Richard Buckley who is a member of the team in the Sheffield office or Andrew Smith who is a member of our York office.

Please note this information is provided by way of example and may not be complete and is certainly not intended to constitute legal advice. You should take bespoke advice for your circumstances.

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