New Domestic Abuse Bill published

Family|January 21st 2019

“Throughout my political career I have worked to bring about an end to domestic abuse. Our new Domestic Abuse Bill will help survivors and stamp out this life-shattering crime.”

So tweeted Prime Minister Theresa May, announcing the new Domestic Abuse Bill. Well, it’s a nice idea, but of course nothing will bring an end to domestic abuse – such a suggestion, as with ‘stamping out this crime’, is nothing more than another politician’s unachievable promise. Hopefully, however, the new Bill will, if passed, at least reduce the incidence of domestic abuse, and it should certainly provide some help for survivors of abuse.

The draft Bill includes the following provisions:

  1. The first statutory government definition of domestic abuse. As drafted, this states that behaviour by a person (“A”) towards another person (“B”) is “domestic abuse” if A and B are each aged 16 or over and are personally connected, and the behaviour is abusive. OK, so what is “abusive”? This is defined in two parts, relating to ‘behaviour’ and ‘economic abuse. Behaviour is “abusive” if it consists of any of the following—

(a) physical or sexual abuse;

(b) violent or threatening behaviour;

(c) controlling or coercive behaviour;

(d) economic abuse (see below); or

(e) psychological, emotional or other abuse.

“Economic abuse” means any behaviour that has a substantial adverse effect on B’s ability to acquire, use or maintain money or other property, or obtain goods or services.

  1. To establish a ‘Domestic Abuse Commissioner’, “to drive the response to domestic abuse issues”.
  2. To introduce new Domestic Abuse Protection Notices and Domestic Abuse Protection Orders. A Notice, which may be given by a senior police officer, prohibits the person to whom it is given from being abusive towards a person aged 16 or over to whom they are personally connected. A person breaching the Notice may be arrested and taken before a magistrates’ court. An Order prevents a person from being abusive towards a person aged 16 or over to whom they is personally connected by prohibiting them from doing things described in the order, or requiring them to do things described in the order. It may be made on application to a court, or by the court of its own motion. The court may impose any requirement it considers necessary to protect the victim, including requiring the abuser to submit to electronic tagging. Obviously, breach of the Order is an offence.
  3. Lastly, and this is the ‘headline’ provision, the Bill prohibits the cross-examination of alleged victims by their alleged abusers in the family courts. Now, I’ve not made a study of the new provisions, but at first glance they seem similar to the provisions that were previously included in the Prisons and Courts Bill, which was dropped in the run-up to the last general election. In particular, it includes a provision to the effect that if the court decides there is no satisfactory alternative, it may appoint a legal representative to cross-examine the alleged victim, the fees of whom may be paid by the state.

OK, so a fairly substantial package, which led Justice Secretary David Gauke to comment:

“Domestic abuse destroys lives and warrants some of the strongest measures at our disposal to deter offenders and protect victims.

“That is why we are barring abusers from cross-examining their victims in the family courts – a practice which can cause immense distress and amount to a continuation of abuse – and giving courts greater powers, including new protection orders, to tackle this hideous crime.

“By pursuing every option available, to better support victims and bring more offenders to justice, we are driving the change necessary to ensure families never have to endure the pain of domestic abuse in silence.”

The above is a very quick glance at a hot-off-the-press Bill, which obviously requires detailed scrutiny. However, I think many will be pleased with what they see. In particular, family lawyers will I’m sure welcome the long-awaited prohibition on the cross-examination of alleged victims by their alleged abusers. I’m not sure what the new definition of abuse adds to the existing (non-statutory) definition, and we will just have to see how useful a Domestic Abuse Commissioner will be. Otherwise, adding extra options for punishing abusers and also (not so far as I can see mentioned in the draft Bill), the added emphasis on rehabilitating offenders are definitely welcome developments.

You can read the full text of the Bill here (see Annex D). The draft Bill will now be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by a joint committee of both Houses of Parliament.

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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