As the UK seeks to control the infectious spread of COVID19, there is a notable impact of social distancing and self isolation on those who are experiencing or at genuine risk of harm from perpetrators of domestic violence. Earlier in the week domestic violence support charity Refuge announced a 25% increase in calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline since lockdown measures began. On the same day, Women’s Aid wrote to the prime minister calling for an urgent strategy to protect girls and women.
The reported increase is demonstrating that lockdown is creating dangerously fertile territory for domestic violence to flourish as vulnerable individuals are being confined to their homes with their perpetrator and isolation is causing an environment which can aggravate pre existing behaviour in abusive partners.
Domestic violence is a very real issue in the UK; last year a staggering 1.6 million women and 786,000 men in the UK suffered from domestic abuse. In that context, proper consideration during this pandemic needs to be given to vulnerable people who do not have safe homes. These are unprecedented circumstances where for many individuals active pathways to seek help have suddenly come to a grinding halt; many children no longer have accessible schools, specialist services are running on a limited basis, families are unable to be in regular contact with professionals, numerous counselling sessions have been suspended, staying with family or friends is not an option, and it may be harder to secure a refuge.
Other nations are reporting a similar increase in domestic violence. The Spanish Ministry of Equality reported that the emergency number for domestic violence received 18% more calls in the first two weeks of lockdown than in the same period a month earlier. Between 18 March and 5 April, CNN reported that domestic abuse website searches have more than doubled in New York. The National Commission for Women in India reported double the number of domestic abuse cases in the first week of nationwide movement restrictions. Australia reported a 75% increase in internet searches relating to domestic violence victims. The French police reported a nationwide spike of about 30% in domestic violence. France and Spain have launched a new initiative giving victims a code word to use in pharmacies to seek immediate assistance.
There is also a pressing need to be alert to differing types of abuse that are being reported globally. For example, emotionally abusing victims by hiding items such as hand sanitizer, using COVID19 as a means to prevent contact with children, threats to harm if COVID19 symptoms are displayed, using isolation itself as a way to control victims and insist they should not seek help as they will catch the virus if they leave home.
There is a risk that for many victims being in lockdown 24/7 with their abuser will act as a deterrent to them seeking help. Domestic violence charities and advice centres, are working tirelessly to ensure that victims are aware that support remains available.
Women’s Aid recommend a number of measures including encouraging those at risk of immediate danger not to be afraid to call 999 in an emergency, using the Silent Solution System and downloading the free Bright Sky app which allows access to questionnaires to assess the safety of a relationship and a ‘find help’ tool which leads to a directory of support services.
But is there a gap between support being available and victims being able to access it?
Whilst courts are available to hear urgent applications such as for injunctive relief under the Family Law Act 1996 (e.g. non molestation order or occupation order), there remains a real concern that victims in the most danger are unable to reach out and access the support that they need.
The Law Society this week called for ‘every effort is made to support refuges and advice centres and signpost domestic abuse victims to expert solicitors – giving victims and their children the resources they need to protect themselves and to feel safe during this pandemic’. The solicitor’s group highlights the fact that many victims who could ordinarily rely on documentation from their GP in order to meet gateway regulations to obtain legal aid, will find it near on impossible to obtain such evidence in the current climate.
There is a growing concern that remote hearings on an urgent basis are much more difficult for individuals to access as opposed to physical attendance at Court and that current government guidance presumes that victims will be able to access a telephone or other remote form of communication and does not adequately consider those with disabilities or language barriers.
It is essential that whilst recognising the necessity of lockdown to defeat COVID19, measures are put in place to allow for victims of domestic abuse to seek assistance to ensure that they are protected.
Helplines for domestic abuse are found at www.gov.uk/reports-domestic-abuse.