The government finally set out its domestic abuse bill in Parliament on Tuesday, which provides for protection orders and polygraph tests on offenders. The bill had been stalled back in November last year when Boris Johnson prorogued Parliament and MPs voted for an early general election.
According to the Home Office, the bill offers immediate protection to victims by imposing requirements on perpetrators such as prohibiting contact with the victim or forcing the perpetrator into alcohol or drug treatment programmes. This refers to the proposed domestic abuse protection orders and protection notices (DAPNs). The government has said that it will fund the court costs for the police applying for these orders while the pilot scheme takes place.
Under the Bill, a senior police officer can give a DAPN if they have grounds to believe that a person has been abusive to another person to whom they are personally connected, and the police officer thinks it is necessary to protect the victim from the risk of abuse.
In 2011, the government’s pilot of domestic violence protection orders (DVPOs) – essentially an earlier version of the DAPNs – in three police forces was hailed as a success. The legal charity Transform Justice, however, has questioned the evidence for this claim. The improvements in recidivism rates were significant if the DVPO was imposed after three or more police call outs, but where there had been fewer than three callouts there was no impact on recidivism, or the DVPO may even have made things worse. According to police statistics, only 1% of the DVPOs were breached by the perpetrator contacting the victim, whereas victims themselves said that nearly half were.
The Bill also includes plans to make domestic abusers take polygraph tests, which work by measuring changes in heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate and sweat, but are not 100% accurate. According to the Home Office, offenders will take the polygraph three months after their release and then again every six months after that. Failure would not mean a return to prison unless the offender refused to take the test or tried to ‘trick it’.
If the bill passes into law, a three-year pilot will take place on domestic abusers considered at high risk of causing serious harm and if successful, the scheme will be rolled out nationwide.
The Bill incorporates both economic abuse and ‘tech abuse’ – where abusers use personal devices and smart gadgets to control their victims – into the definition of domestic abuse. A move welcomed by charities and campaign groups. Refuge has found that 72% of people who spoke to them had experienced abuse through technology.
As well as requiring county councils and unitary authorities to provide support and safe accommodation to victims and their children, the Bill applies the ban on abusers cross-examining their victims in the family courts to all family proceedings where there is evidence of domestic abuse.
An independent Office of the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, a new post currently held by Nicole Jacobs, will be made a statutory body and will publish reports on its findings.
The government also said that it was looking at what could be done to curb the so called ‘rough sex’ defence. Campaign group, We Can’t Consent to This, says that in the past decade, 30 women and girls have been killed in the UK in what was claimed to have been consensual violent sexual activity. In 2018, Natalie Connolly was left bleeding to death at the bottom of the stairs having sustained 40 injuries. Her boyfriend, John Broadhurst, was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 44 months after arguing the two had been engaged in consensual rough sex. There have been renewed calls for the law to be changed so that the ‘rough sex gone wrong’ defence can no longer be used in court.
Adina Claire, Acting co-CEO of Women’s Aid, said: that almost three years after a domestic abuse bill was first promised, the return of this legislation to parliament was ‘welcome and urgently needed’. ‘The legal duty on local authorities to provide refuge services could be life-saving, but only if it is underpinned by sustainable funding for specialist women’s services,’ she said; adding that the investment required would be in the region of £173 million annually.
Claire also welcomed that the government had ‘listened to our calls for a wider ban on cross-examination to protect all survivors who face this traumatising practice in the court system’. ‘But there remains a long way to go before the family courts will be truly safe for women and children,’ she said. ‘The law must make survivors automatically eligible for special protection measures in the family and civil courts, not only the criminal courts.’