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Opinion

The Domestic Abuse Act is now law but our campaigning must continue

There is still much work to do beyond the Domestic Abuse Act, writes Women’s Aid chief executive Farah Nazeer.

Four years after it was promised in the Queen’s Speech, the Domestic Abuse Act has finally received Royal Assent and is now law. Two general elections and a global pandemic later, this is a real achievement for everyone involved.

We want to pay credit to the brave survivors who have shared their stories in Westminsterso that the real impact of domestic abuse was understood. None of this would have been possible without MPs – including Jess Phillips MP who knows firsthand what it is like to work for a Women’s Aid member service, and has championed survivors’ needs throughout – as well as charities, campaignersand members of the public coming together to create change for those living with domestic abuse. 

The new law comes at a poignant time. As we warned at the start of the pandemic, existing domestic abuse became more frequent and severe. Covid-19 clearly does not cause abuse – only abusers are responsible for their behaviour. But abusers will seize any tool to increase control over their victims. Survivors told us about perpetrators using Covid-19 as part of abuse and increased coercive control during the pandemic.

There is much to welcome in the new law, including strengthened protection in the family courts, recognition of children as victims in their own right, a guarantee that survivors escaping domestic abuse will be in ‘priority need’ for housing, and a legal duty on councils to fund support in safe accommodation.

A refuge is so much more than a roof over your head. It is a place where experienced domestic abuse support workers give dedicated support, meaning that survivors feel safe and understood, and receive expert support to recover from trauma and start a new life.

However, despite tireless campaigning, the new Act has some significant gaps. Although local authorities are now required by law to fund support for survivors in ‘accommodation based’ services, the Act does not use the word ‘refuge’ at all. We have a real fear that by not specifying the need for a refuge, women and their children fleeing abuse could be placed in unsafe hostels or B&B accommodation.

We are already seeing landlords with no experience in a domestic abuse setting themselves up as providers of emergency accommodation, and we have fears over these being funded in place of desperately needed women’s refuges.   

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A refuge is so much more than a roof over your head. It is a place where experienced domestic abuse support workers give dedicated support, meaning that survivors feel safe and understood, and receive expert support to recover from trauma and start a new life.

The thought that women who have had to flee abuse, often with their children, could end up in unsafe accommodation is very worrying.  This cannot be left unaddressed and Women’s Aid will continue to press the Government to address this significant gap. 

The next phase of the Act is to produce guidance and regulations which underpin this new duty for local authorities. This will be an opportunity to make crystal clear that they must fund specialist women’s refuges delivering expert support to survivors and their children and not to waste this precious money on those who have no experience or expertise of supporting women through domestic abuse. Women’s refuge services, which are saving lives every day all around the country are vital to our response to domestic abuse. Please sign our petition to this effect.  

We are also deeply disappointed that not all women will be protected by the new Act. Despite the tireless campaigning of Southall Black Sisters, the Step Up Migrant Women campaign led by the Latin American Women’s Rights Service and the End Violence Against Women Coalition, the government has failed to commit to equal protection and support for migrant women. We will continue to campaign on this important issue, until every woman can access the same help and support. We cannot believe that anyone in our country thinks it is right for women and their children to be left to endure abuse, harm and suffering because of their immigration status. 

Finally, we will continue to call for urgent reform of the family courts. Whilst the law will improve protection for survivors within court rooms, it does nothing to change the ‘pro-contact’ culture of the family justice system. This means the courts often consider parents’ rights to have their contact with their children as more of a priority than the children’s safety – which we believe is utterly absurd. 

Our Survivor Ambassador Claire Throssell’s two boys Jack and Paul were forced to spend time with their abusive father by a court order – even after Claire warned he was capable of killing. He went on to kill both boys when he had access to them, trapping them in the attic and starting a fire. 

As Claire told us, “There is much talk of parental rights in the family courts but none of children’s rights. No child should ever have to raise a hand for help or call out in the dark like my sons had to. The children murdered at the hands of known perpetrators must never be forgotten.” 

The Act has been called a “once in a generation opportunity” but now we have to see how it translates on the ground. The Act must come with training for everyone working with survivors of domestic abuse, so that the new law can fulfil its potential. 

Domestic abuse costs society approximately £66 billion a year, it costs too many lives and it also costs the public purse if we do not invest in stopping it – which we estimate would be £393 million a year to support the national network of services for women and children.  

Royal Assent on the Domestic Abuse Act is a landmark moment, but rather than being the end of a process, it marks a beginning. 

The legislation needs to now translate to action to provide the changes that survivors of domestic abuse need to see.

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