The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 – and what it means for family law

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We’re nearly 6 months on since the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 received Royal Assent but only parts have come into law on 1 October 2021 with many of the provisions still to be appointed. The bill came into effect after many years of campaigning by survivors of domestic abuse and domestic abuse organisations.

The law creates a legal definition of domestic abuse, establishes the office of Domestic Abuse Commissioner and provides protection for children in their own right.

Abusive behaviour’ is defined in the act as any of the following:

  • physical or sexual abuse
  • violent or threatening behaviour
  • controlling or coercive behaviour
  • economic abuse
  • psychological, emotional or other abuse

For the definition to apply, both parties must be aged 16 or over and ‘personally connected’. Personally connected includes people who are married to each other, civil partners, people who have agreed to marry or enter a civil partnership, had a parental relationship in relation to the same child, in a personal relationship to each other or are relatives. Controlling or coercive behaviour is recognised in the definition which is an important step. The family court has changed its approach as to how it considers whether there is controlling or coercive behaviour in a relationship.

The Act is intended to help victims of abuse in both criminal law proceedings and family law proceedings, as well as providing wider support such as providing safe housing.

The provisions relating to cases in the family court came into effect on 1 October 2021 and in particular measures preventing perpetrators of domestic abuse from questioning the victim in a family law court case are now in effect. This is an important step for those who have experienced domestic abuse. It is difficult enough for the victim to leave an abusive relationship. If family proceedings are then needed such as divorce, to deal with the arrangements for the children or deal with the division of the finances then the relationship continues between the abuser and victim. Most working in family law are conscious of the impact upon the parties where domestic abuse is alleged and that the way family proceedings are conducted does not always provide sufficient protection for the victim. It can re-open the trauma of the relationship for the victim.

It is very early days to comment on how effective the Domestic Abuse Act will be within the family courts but my view is that most family practitioners who work in this field are trying to protect victims and so the new law will make it easier for measures to be put in place to reduce the impact of court proceedings. Many of the measures to protect the victim were an option prior to the implementation of the Act but should be much easier to put in place.

Until the entire Act comes into force it is difficult to know if the provisions will bring about better protection for victims of domestic abuse and provide a more cohesive support system. There will hopefully be greater momentum for investment in the domestic abuse support system as a result of the recent high-profile murders of women. The increase of reports of domestic violence during the pandemic has highlighted the need for steps to be taken to protect those in an abusive relationship and to prevent the abuse in the first place. The focus may also now be on preventing the abuse in the first place rather than just protecting the victims of domestic abuse. We need to see a whole system change to protect victims of domestic abuse and to tackle the reasons for the abuse and finding ways to prevent it from happening.

Hazel Manktelow is a Consultant family law solicitor and mediator with Family Law Partners. Based in Hampshire she advises clients in Petersfield, Clanfield and the surrounding areas.

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