Divorce myth: The law cannot do anything about domestic abuse – unless its physical abuse
The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 received royal assent on 29 April 2021. The purpose of the Act was to raise awareness and understanding of the impact of domestic abuse on the victims and their families. Among a range of new laws and powers, the Act:
- Created a legal definition of domestic abuse, and highlighted that this is not just physical violence but also emotional, controlling or coercive, and economic abuse
- Created a new Domestic Abuse Protection Notice and Domestic Abuse Protection Order
- Placed a duty on local authorities to provide accommodation and support to victims of domestic abuse and their children
- Prevented perpetrators of domestic abuse from cross-examining their victims in person in the civil and family courts
- Clarified that the family court could prevent a perpetrator from pursuing family proceedings that could cause further harm to their victims
- Extended the definition of controlling or coercive behaviour to cover abuse that took place after separation
- Widened the offence of disclosing private sexual photographs and films (commonly known as the ‘revenge porn’ offence) to cover any threat of doing so.
It provided important structure to the way that the police, local authorities, health professionals, and others can act to support and protect a victim of domestic abuse.
The recognition that domestic abuse does not simply come in the form of physical assault has been a major legal development. It addressed problems that, previously, the police recorded offences of domestic abuse under broader terms of assault, with the ensuing difficulties that came with pursuing convictions under laws that were not specifically targeted at domestic situations.
What can the family courts do?
Alongside the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, under the Family Law Act 1996 the family courts can grant a range of orders to protect victims of domestic abuse. A victim can ask the family court to grant a non-molestation order to prevent their former spouse or cohabitee from pestering or harassing them, and preventing the perpetrator from committing, or threatening to commit, acts of violence. A breach of a non-molestation order is a criminal offence, which can lead to arrest by the police and criminal charges and sentencing.
The court can also regulate the occupation of the property lived in by the victim. A victim of abuse can ask the court to exclude the perpetrator from the property in which they live or have lived with their partner. These orders are time-limited in some circumstances, but they can offer much needed respite and provide the time required to then address the longer term arrangements.
It is no longer the case that domestic abuse is a ‘private’ matter to be addressed behind closed doors. The need to combat domestic abuse, both physical and emotional, requires the full attention of legal professionals. The law now goes further than ever to offer victims of abuse, and their families, the protection and support that they rightfully deserve.