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What does the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 mean for the Family Courts?
According to the Office of National Statistics, around 1.5 million cases of domestic abuse were recorded in the year ending March 2021, with cases rising throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.
With multiple areas of law covering domestic abuse, this article will focus on the changes made to family law proceedings and the role of the courts in dealing with this issue.
The Act was brought in to raise awareness and understanding of the impact of domestic abuse and to improve the justice system by providing protection for victims. The aim of the changes made were to improve the experience of victims of domestic abuse and children within the family courts, as this has been a major issue raised by victims who felt re-traumatized throughout court proceedings which involved their abuser. The family court is also a key site for post-separation abuse, such as stalking, and a way for the abuser to continue exercising coercive and controlling behaviour within financial and children’s proceedings.
- 1. The Act finally brought in a statutory definition for what is classed as domestic abuse. It defines it as:
- Physical or sexual abuse
- Violent or threatening behaviour
- Controlling or coercive behaviour
- Economic abuse
- Psychological, emotional or other abuse.
- This definition moves away from the focus on abuse only being physical and acknowledges that abuse can be psychological and economical as well, as often abuse is demonstrated by coercive and controlling behaviour, both during and after the relationship.
- 2. The Act prohibits offenders from cross-examining their victims in person in the family courts. An automatic ban is placed on those who have been convicted, charged, or cautioned for domestic abuse, or where an on-notice protective injunction is in place. Should there be other evidence of domestic abuse, the court has the power to impose the ban if cross-examination is likely to diminish the quality of the witnesses’ evidence or cause significant distress to them.
- The Act also allows for special measures to automatically be put in place in these circumstances, such as giving evidence via video link, privacy screens placed in court, separate waiting areas and separate entrances/exits. Family proceedings can be incredibly difficult for those who have suffered from domestic abuse and so these measures will ensure that victims suffer as little stress as possible throughout proceedings by not having to come into direct contact or communication with their abuser.
- 3. The Act introduces the Domestic Abuse Protection Order, which is similar to the pre-existing non-molestation injunction. This order is designed to prevent a victim from being abused by prohibiting the abuser from doing things described in the order, such as contacting the victim, or it could require the party to comply with the order, such as attending a rehabilitation programme. With these orders, the police have a power to arrest the perpetrator and a breach of the order can lead to a fine and/or 5 years imprisonment.
The implementation of the Act is a step towards identifying and acknowledging different forms of abuse which may have not been considered previously, and it widens the scope for the courts to consider other abusive behaviours that can take place within family proceedings. It also ensures that practitioners, as well as the courts, are able to accommodate and understand their abused clients, in terms of how appropriate applications should be made to the court, in order to protect them from further unnecessary abuse and distress through what is an already extremely difficult process. The measures in place will hopefully allow for a greater sense of safety for victims of domestic abuse and enable them to fully set out their case in court without the fear of what their abuser may say or do.
Written by : Claudia Stachini (Solicitor)