Home or Place of Torture?

The surge in Domestic Violence Cases During Lockdown

by Sarah McVeigh

The UK went into lockdown on the 23rd March 2020, restricting people from leaving their homes unless it was deemed as essential. Lockdown was the Government’s attempt to mitigate the spread of Coronavirus in the UK. This was, and still is, regulated by The Health Protection Regulations 2020. People’s day to day lives changed drastically and for those women who were fortunate enough, lockdown meant that they were able to spend quality time with their families. Whether this was baking endless loaves of banana bread or binge watching their favourite Netflix series together, most women viewed lockdown as a way to reconnect with their loved ones. The heart-breaking reality of lockdown for some women meant that they were forced to stay in their so-called ‘home’ with their abuser.

Domestic abuse is, and has always been, a continual issue that is prevalent all year round. Women’s Aid, a charity dedicated to helping victims of domestic violence, explain that domestic abuse is a pattern of behaviour on the part of the abuser designed to control his partner. The different forms of abuse can be divided into six categories: 1. Sexual abuse 2. Psychological abuse 3. Economic abuse 4. Coercive abuse 5. Physical abuse 6. Technology abuse. The Government’s guidance on household-isolation directly impacted women enduring domestic abuse. The so-called ‘home’ is not a safe place for survivors of domestic abuse, rather, it is a place of torture. For many women, the support of family, friends, neighbours and community groups can be a vital lifeline. Unfortunately, social distancing and self-isolation were used as a tool of coercive and controlling behaviour by abusers.

Lockdown seen more than 40,000 calls made to National Domestic Abuse Helplines from women seeking help. An investigation was carried out by the BBC’s Panorama which revealed that two-thirds of women in abusive relationships have suffered more violence from their partners during lockdown and a staggering 72% of women said that their abuser has had more control over their life since the pandemic. The impact of self-isolation also had a negative impact on specialist services such as Refuge and Solace Women’s Aid. Lockdown saw these services operating in an extremely challenging climate for funding, and were rightly concerned about how to continue delivering life-saving support during the pandemic. They could see challenges in funding, staff shortages and further demand for their help.

Before lockdown began, the House of Commons introduced The Domestic Abuse Bill on 3rd March 2020. The Domestic Abuse Bill aimed to spread awareness of domestic abuse and to provide support and protection for victims. The Bill also aimed to create a fairer and safer court process for victims by creating a statutory presumption that victims are eligible for special measures during court, in addition to prohibiting defendants from cross-examining their victims. Unfortunately, despite The Domestic Abuse Bill being enacted in early March 2020, there was a surge in domestic violence cases during lockdown. This highlighted the need for Government to provide further measures in order to tackle the issue of domestic abuse throughout the UK.

The Governments initial response in tackling domestic violence was to provide an additional £2 million to domestic abuse helplines. These extra funds were provided to allow victims to access extra support and guidance during lockdown. Further Government action had been seen in April where more than 4000 arrests had been made in London alone; this number had risen by 24% since last year and averages at 100 arrests a day.

The policy paper for The Domestic Abuse Bill 2020 was updated mid-August 2020 to improve the effectiveness of the justice system in providing protection for victims of domestic abuse and bringing abusers to justice. Further measures are currently being taken in addition to the measures in the Bill. These examples include, investing in domestic abuse training for responding agencies and professionals, developing national guidance for police on serial and repeat perpetrators and to continue to develop means to collect, report and track domestic abuse data. These measures are set to cost between £137-155million per year once fully implemented.

Government strategy, ‘Stopping Domestic and Sexual Violence and Abuse in Northern Ireland,’ redefined domestic violence and abuse as: ‘threatening, controlling, coercive behaviour, violence or abuse (psychological, virtual, physical, verbal, sexual, financial or emotional) inflicted on anyone (irrespective of age, ethnicity, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or any form of disability) by a current or former intimate partner or family member.’ Here in Northern Ireland, the Police Service for Northern Ireland (PSNI) are available to help anyone suffering from domestic abuse and aim to bring the abusers to justice. Since lockdown began, the PSNI has reported over 8,000 incidents of domestic violence between April and June this year. Pre-lockdown, domestic incidents and crimes in Northern Ireland were already running at a 15-year high, according to figures published by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency.

The PSNI collaborate with partner organisations such as Women’s Aid to provide support and guidance for those in need. Emergency accommodation for victims has been a key focus and much valuable work has been progressed in Northern Ireland to provide victims with this accommodation. Women’s Aid have funded ‘Crash pads’ throughout Northern Ireland to allow emergency 48-hour accommodation for very high risk PSNI referrals. There is however an obvious need for more emergency accommodation for victims across Northern Ireland as as domestic violence cases rise. Women in Northern Ireland have a lower level of protection than the rest of the UK because of the three-year suspension to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Without a devolved government, it meant legislation to protect women from coercive control was never passed although, the Assembly is currently trying to push some measures through.

Legal rights:

o You have rights under the criminal law. Being assaulted by someone you know or live with is just as much a crime as violence from a stranger, and often more dangerous. See police and the criminal prosecution process for more information.

o You can apply for a civil court order to tell your abuser to stop harassing or hurting you, or to keep out of or away from your home. See getting an injunction for information on these options.

o You can get help with emergency or temporary accommodation.

o The law can also help to protect children. You can apply to the Family Courts for an order specifying where and with whom the children should live and regulating contact with the other parent.

Domestic abuse is dealt with under both the criminal and civil law. Know the difference:

o The civil law is primarily aimed at protection (or in some cases compensation). A survivor of domestic violence can make an application for an injunction (a court order) either to the Family Proceedings Court or the County Court (usually through her solicitor). Other family proceedings (such as child contact or divorce) also take place in the County Court.

o The criminal law is primarily aimed at punishing the offender. The police together with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) initiate the process. Criminal cases are heard in either the Magistrates’ Court or the Crown Court depending on the severity of the charge.

(Source: Women’s Aid)

If you are affected, or know someone who is affected by domestic abuse contact:

Name of organisation Helpline

PSNI 999

The Domestic & Sexual Abuse Helpline. 080 880 21414

Victim Support NI 028 902 43133

Women’s Aid 028 902 49041

Nexus NI 028 903 26803

Relate NI 028 903 23454

The Rowan 080 038 94424