By Cris McCurley – Partner with Ben Hoare Bell solicitors
After a significant period of consultation, the Home Office have published the Domestic Abuse bill and report. The 100s of front line domestic abuse experts who contributed to the consultation can well be forgiven for thinking that either their response got lost in the post, or that they have wasted their time: Disappointingly, there is very little said about urgent funding needed for services , and a lot about increasing Police powers and emphasis on the criminalisation of Domestic Abuse. Concerns that this emphasis could deter women from reporting abuse for fear of losing their hidden, or criminalising their children’s father appear to have gone unheard.
There are good things about the bill, such as the proposed creation of a DA Commissioner responsible for the oversight of services. There is a commitment to ending cross examination of a victim by an abuser in family cases, which has been lobbied for, for years, which is welcomed.
Overwhelmingly, though, whilst the bill has some good ideas, it is silent in the main as to how they will be funded. The UK is in the middle of the worst crisis in the Family Justice system in living memory. Austerity measures leading to cuts to every part of the system (including legal aid, court closures, Police numbers, local authority funding) plus an unprecedented rise in the numbers of children being taken into care mean that the system is failing victims of abuse at every point.
The Police don’t have the resources to use the powers that they already have to assist victims of abuse and their children: They are not using the powers that they already have, and with no extra funding committed, it is unlikely that they will ever use the enhanced powers described in the act, even if they were asked to.
The Bill was discussed at the UN Convention to eliminate Discrimination against women (CEDAW) last month when the UK Government were called to account for how they are protecting victims of abuse: the Bill was described by the Commissioners as ‘more aspirational than achievable’, with concern being repeatedly raised about the impact of austerity hitting women the hardest, and women such as GRT and BME women the hardest, due in part to the erosion of specialist services. The Government was urged to stop facilitating tax avoidance schemes for the very rich. If they did this it was argued, there would be more than enough funding available to meet all the needs of the women, children and services.
At present, approximately 65% of women who need a refuge space for themselves and their children are being turned away. Refuges are closing. Specialist services are being replaced by generic ones who don’t meet the needs of many women, including GRT, BME and disabled women. The funding that the Government has so far committed to putting back into the system was described by CEDAW as negligible and nowhere near sufficient to make the bill credible.
The CEDAW commissioners in their findings, reported on 8.3.19, urged the Government to ensure that GRT women are able to access health care, and also stated that there must be a review about the impact of Austerity and Brexit on the women of the UK.
The Domestic Abuse Bill is now in its committee stages and an advisory panel is being established to take further input from interested parties, so everyone with an idea of what services are needed, the funding required, and how the bill can be improved upon have the opportunity, now, to do so.
A link to the draft Domestic Abuse Bill can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-publishes-landmark-domestic-abuse-bill
Further reading from Cris McCurley can be found here: https://www.lag.org.uk/?id=206010
 It also expresses concern that women may be disproportionately affected by the negative economic impact of Brexit and the loss of funding from the European Union for specialized programmes and service for women and girls