Transforming the response to domestic abuse

Closes 31 May 2018

Introducing a new statutory definition of domestic abuse

Domestic abuse is a complex area, which is often misunderstood and goes unrecognised or unidentified by agencies, families and friends and even victims themselves.

There are many myths and stereotypes surrounding domestic abuse that can lead to victims receiving negative responses, and poor advice which can exacerbate suffering. In order to transform our response to domestic abuse we first need to ensure that it is properly understood.

One domestic abuse stereotype involves a drunk perpetrator who seemingly loses control and assaults their partner. While there is evidence of a link between alcohol and domestic abuse [1] this presentation is too simplistic and does not reflect either the complex reality and lived experience of victims or the range of relationships in which domestic abuse can occur.

“I don’t think I would have admitted it was a domestic abuse situation. I just felt my ex was just a nasty man. The hospital IDVA went through one of her questionnaires and I was on the border of being high-risk.” [2]

Domestic abuse does not only occur between couples but can also involve wider family members, such as parental abuse by an adolescent or grown child.

Statistics from the Homicide Index show that between the end of March 2014- end of March 2016 there were 13 instances of individuals killing a parent. [3] Domestic abuse can also involve abuse between older siblings or the wider extended family. Such abuse can be directed in a coordinated and collusive way designed to completely isolate the victim.

“My husband started the physical abuse, and the other family members soon followed. His family began to give the children expensive gifts and my children began to turn against me... From day one, my mother-in-law, father-in-law, sisters and brothers in law, and then my husband and now children too. What was I going to do?” [4]

There are many types of behaviour which can be exhibited as part of domestic abuse including manipulation, isolation, control and use of threats and humiliation which harm, frighten or punish a victim.

Simplistic depictions often fail to recognise the dynamics of power and control which are present in many abusive relationships, the risk that control represents to a victim’s safety and the autonomy and responsibility of the perpetrator.

Research carried out by Jane Monckton Smith found control was a key feature in 92% of domestic murders, obsession in 94%, and isolation from family and friends in 78%. [5]

“She controlled my friendships and controlled my contact with my family. This would include logging onto my emails and sending emails to my family pretending to be me.” [6]

We want to ensure that domestic abuse is properly understood which is why we have committed to introducing a statutory definition of domestic abuse which aims to affirm the government definition of domestic abuse and links to some of the other powers that may be included in the draft bill.

It is not our intention that this definition should automatically replace all other existing definitions, or apply to other legislative provisions, already set out in statute. However, we will consider instances where that might be appropriate.

We propose that we use the existing cross-government definition as the basis for the new statutory definition. In line with the existing definition, it would:

  • not be limited to women and girls and recognise abuse that happens in all relationships i.e. intimate partner and familial settings.
    • this will ensure all victims and all types of domestic abuse are sufficiently captured and no victim is inadvertently excluded from protection or access to services
  • include both single incidents and patterns of behaviour.
    • Whilst the government recognises that domestic abuse is almost always part of an ongoing pattern of behaviour [7], limiting the definition solely to patterns of abuse could risk preventing the police and public services from providing protection in seemingly one-off instances

However, unlike the existing definition it would:

  • cover the concept of ‘economic abuse’ rather than simply financial abuse.
    • while the current non-statutory government definition of domestic abuse already recognises financial abuse, we are aware that this can be restrictive in circumstances where victims may be denied access to basic resources such as food, clothing and transportation. In addition, victims may be forced into taking out loans or entering into other financial contracts by the perpetrator. We therefore want to take a more expansive approach to account for all these forms of abuse
  • be accompanied by underpinning statutory guidance for professionals who have safeguarding obligations.
    • this would provide more detail on the typologies and nuances of domestic abuse; and on the circumstances where we expect the definition to be used. This could elaborate and provide context on, for example, the gendered nature of domestic abuse and features of abusive relationships

The proposed statutory definition would therefore define domestic abuse as:

Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

The abuse can encompass, but is not limited to:

  • psychological
  • physical
  • sexual
  • economic
  • emotional

Controlling behaviour

Controlling behaviour is a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.

Coercive behaviour

Coercive behaviour is an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.

1. Do you agree with the proposed approach to the statutory definition?

2. Will the new definition change what your organisation does? Please select 1. (This question is for organisations only)

3. How can we ensure that the definition is embedded in frontline practice?

4. What impact do you think the changes to the age limit in the 2012 definition have had?

In 2012 the Government consulted on the definition of domestic abuse and widened it to include 16 to 17 year olds. We want to review that decision in order to assess its impact.[8]

5. We are proposing to maintain the current age limit of 16 years in the statutory definition – do you agree with this approach?

We recognise that there will be different combinations of age ranges within relationships where there is domestic abuse. We also recognise that those under 16 can also be victims of domestic abuse either in their own relationships or as a result of abuse in the home.

The government has carried out a range of activities to raise awareness of this abuse, including the Teenage Relationship Abuse campaign.[9] Going forward, we are concerned that including those under 16 in the statutory definition of abuse could blur the lines between what is understood as domestic abuse or child abuse and impact delivery of child protection and safeguarding procedures. We therefore are proposing to maintain the current age limit.