On July 6, the UK’s House of Commons passed the much-awaited Domestic Abuse Bill, in a moment described as “landmark” by campaigners against violence against women and girls.
Activists have long argued that the UK’s existing laws around domestic abuse were inadequate and out of date, and this new legislation has been seen as an important opportunity to address those issues and save lives, according to leading domestic abuse charity Refuge.
The new law has faced several delays since 2017 due to Brexit dominating parliament and two surprise general elections. The Bill was reintroduced on March 3 this year, then put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Crucially, what the Bill does is create Britain’s first ever “statutory definition of domestic abuse, emphasising that domestic abuse is not just physical violence, but can also be emotional, coercive or controlling, and economic,” the government’s summary of the legislation says.
It means that a wider range of behaviour such as “financial abuse” — which includes behaviour like controlling the family income entirely, limiting access to utilities, and property damage — has been recognised as domestic abuse. Meanwhile “tech abuse”, like using modern technology to track and spy on a partner or ex-partner, has also gained recognition.
Financial abuse is a “grey area of the law” due to how it intersects with other abusive behaviour — but by being included in the statutory definition of domestic abuse, it gives organisations a way of responding to it specifically, says a report in Telegraph.
While the passing of the Bill in the Commons (it will now go to a reading in the House of Lords) has been broadly welcomed, campaigners have criticised the Bill for omissions, including protection for migrant women. They say it will lead to the continuation of a situation which discourages migrant women from leaving or reporting abusers.
Gisela Valle, director of the Latin American Women's Rights Service, told the BBC that the Bill had no provision for “safe reporting mechanisms”, meaning migrant women who reported abuse to police could be questioned about their immigration status and even detained.
Meanwhile Harriet Wistrich, director of the Centre for Women's Justice, who said that the Bill was a “landmark” piece of legislation, highlighted that it omitted protection for victims who committed crimes in the context of an abusive relationship, when speaking to the BBC.
The Bill also fails to specifically address “revenge porn” campaigners say.
Hera Hussein, a tech expert, who founded the volunteer-run online resource for victims Chayn, told Global Citizen: “The much-awaited Domestic Abuse Bill is a step in the right direction but it's still missing crucial protection for migrant women and non-consensual image-based abuse [also known as "revenge porn" where intimate images are shared without consent for the purpose of humiliation or control.
“Our laws must be in line with current times and should not have to play catch up to the rapidly-changing technology landscape,” she added.
Additional benefits of the legislation include better protection for victims in court — for example, it creates a statutory presumption that victims of domestic abuse will be eligible for special measures in the criminal courts (for example, to enable them to give evidence via a video link). It also bans perpetrators from being able to cross-examine their victims in family courts, a huge win for campaigners.
And it makes it a statutory requirement for local councils to provide refuge space too, something that has been strongly supported.
The legislation also offers more protection for children living in homes where abuse is taking place, who will now also be seen as victims under the law.
Another hugely important victory for campaigners is the removal of the so-called “rough sex defence” following 18 months of campaigning by the group We Can’t Consent To This.
In the UK parliament tonight, MPs just voted to add to the #DABill to end the use of 'rough sex' defences to killing and serious injury of women.— We Can't Consent To This (@Wecantconsentto) July 6, 2020
Big moment, only a beginning. Huge thanks to @HarrietHarman@Mark4WyreForest@Laura__Farris & all MPs who pushed so hard for this https://t.co/W27FltSeRG
The group was formed in response to a chilling increase of the use of “consent for sexual gratification” being used by men in court who had killed their partner during sex and getting the charge of murder reduced to manslaughter on the basis that the activity was supposedly consensual.
We Can't Consent To This has researched 60 examples of women who were killed during so-called “sex games gone wrong" in the UK since 1972. The group claims that 45% of these cases ended in a "lesser charge of manslaughter, a lighter sentence, or the death not being investigated as a crime at all.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, domestic abuse has sky-rocketed in the UK and around the world.
At least 26 women and girls have been killed by a domestic abuser since the UK went into lockdown on March 23, the New York Times reported this month. It was already an endemic problem in the UK, with Refuge reporting an average of two women a week killed by a partner or former partner.
If you're based in the UK and are experiencing domestic abuse, you can find resources for support collated by the Citizens' Advice Bureau here.