Domestic abuse impacts many people at various points during their lives. The Crime Survey for England and Wales estimated that in the 12 months preceding March 2020, 5.5% of adults aged 16 to 74 years old experienced domestic abuse – that works out at 2.3 million people.
The Domestic Abuse Bill was promised in the Queen’s Speech 2017. Four years later, the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 was finally signed into law on 29 April 2021. The Act aims to provide further protection to victims of domestic abuse, as well as strengthening measures to deal with perpetrators. A number of provisions came into force on the day the Act was passed, and as of 1st October 2021 a further set of provisions have come into force, and which are of particularly pertinence in Family Law proceedings. These include some key definitions of what counts as domestic abuse, how the parties must be related or know each other, special measures for victims of domestic abuse in family proceedings, local authority support, and prohibiting expenses for medical evidence.
What is Domestic Abuse?
The Domestic Abuse Act states that for something to be classed as domestic abuse, there must be three components:
- The perpetrator and victim are both aged 16 or over;
- The behaviour is abusive; and
- They have a relationship that makes them ‘personally connected’.
What is Abusive Behaviour?
Abusive behaviour consists of any of the following:
Physical or sexual abuse – this may include where one person carries out physical or sexual acts without consent.
Violent or threatening behaviour – the perpetrator does not necessarily have to carry out the behaviour, but it is still abuse if it is threatened.
Controlling or coercive behaviour – the Explanatory Notes of the Domestic Abuse Act explain that:
- Controlling behaviour is ‘a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour’.
- Coercive behaviour is ‘a continuing act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish or frighten their victim’.
- The case F v M  explains the difficulty of understanding this type of behaviour, and how it is preferable for the Court to isolate incidents and then look at them in context to understand their greater significance.
Economic abuse – the Act explains that this means any behaviour that adversely effects the victim’s ability to ‘acquire, use or maintain money or other property’ or ‘obtain goods or services’.
Psychological, emotional or other abuse – abuse may be verbal and designed to impact the victim psychologically and emotionally.
It is irrelevant whether the behaviour occurs as a single incident or a course of conduct. The behaviour may still be towards the victim even if the conduct is directed at someone else, for example, the victim’s child.
How Must the Victim and Perpetrator be Related or Know Each Other?
The Domestic Abuse Act sets out that the victim and perpetrator must be ‘personally connected’. This is another way of saying that they must have one of the following types of relationship with each other:
- They are, or have been, married to each other;
- They are, or have been, civil partners of each other;
- They have agreed to marry one another (even if this is no longer the case);
- They have entered into a civil partnership agreement (even if this is no longer the case);
- They are, or have been, in an intimate personal relationship with each other;
- They each have, or there has been a time when they each have had, a parental relationship in relation to the same child; or
- They are relatives.
Special Measures for Victims of Domestic Abuse in Family Proceedings
The Domestic Abuse Act recognises that being a party to proceedings involving domestic abuse can be difficult for the victim. The Act, therefore, introduces an assumption that the quality of a person’s evidence and their participation in the proceedings are likely to be diminished by reason of vulnerability. This applies when the person is a party or witness in family proceedings and is, or is at risk of being, a victim of domestic abuse.
This is applicable if the person is, or is at risk of being, a victim of domestic abuse by:
- A party to the proceedings;
- A relative of a party to the proceedings; or
- A witness in the proceedings.
As a victim of domestic abuse, the victim will be automatically eligible for access to special measures. The type of measures that may be used can be found in the Family Procedure Rules, for example:
- Preventing a party/witness from seeing another party or witness;
- Allowing a party/witness to participate in hearings and give evidence by live link;
- Providing for a party or witness to participate in proceedings with the assistance of an intermediary; and
- Providing for a party or witness to be questioned in court with the assistance of an intermediary.
Local Authority Support
The Act obliges local authorities to support victims of domestic abuse by making it necessary that they:
- Assess, or makes arrangements to assess, the need for accommodation-based support;
- Prepare and publish a strategy to do so; and
- Monitor the effectiveness of the strategy.
Accommodation-based support means support, for victims of domestic abuse and their children in relevant accommodation. The exact type of accommodation to be included has not been finalised, however, it provisionally includes:
- Local authority housing;
- A private registered provider of social housing;
- Registered charity accommodation which provides support to victims of domestic abuse;
- Refuge accommodation;
- Specialist safe accommodation;
- Dispersed accommodation;
- Second stage accommodation; or
- Alternative accommodation designated by the local housing authority, registered social landlord or registered charity as domestic abuse emergency accommodation.
Prohibition on Charging for the Provision of Medical Evidence
Finally, the Domestic Abuse Act states that health professionals cannot charge a fee for the preparation or provision of evidence, when it is evidence that the individual is, or is at risk of being, a victim of domestic abuse, and the evidence supports the individual’s application for legal services.
Rayden Solicitors are family law specialists who can assist in relation to all aspects of family law. If you require legal advice about any of the issues raised in this blog, please do not hesitate to contact us.