By Siobhan Weare, Expert on domestic violence from Lancaster University’s Law School
Measures to protect victims of domestic abuse have featured prominently in the news recently, and any steps taken to address the issue and offer increased legal protection for victims are welcome. But, there still needs to be improvements in both the police and the criminal justice system’s responses to domestic abuse and increased investment in the support services which are so valuable to victims.
A recent report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabularies (HMIC) highlighted a number of significant failings in the police response to victims of domestic abuse. The report emphasised that when victims reported abuse to the police they did not always feel like they were being believed, that specialist domestic violence units in police forces are often under-resourced, and that there are unacceptable variations when charging perpetrators with criminal offences. These failings have been highlighted in numerous high profile cases, including Maria Stubbings and Joanna Michael, who were both murdered by their ex-partners. It is clear that the police urgently need to improve their response, to ensure sufficient protection is offered to victims, more prosecutions are brought and confidence in the criminal justice process is increased.
To do this, there needs to be an eradication of the damaging stereotypes which continue to exist around victims of domestic abuse. Victims are often seen as being female and abused in a heterosexual relationship, with the abuser being their male partner or ex-partner. Although this is true for the majority of domestic abuse cases, a significant minority involve male victims abused by their female partner, or abuse taking place in same-sex relationships. This is often overlooked, which discourages these victims from coming forward for fear that they will not be believed. Research conducted by the charity ManKind has highlighted that ‘male victims (29 per cent) are nearly twice as likely as women (17 per cent) to not tell anyone about the abuse’.
Often victims also need to conform to particular stereotypes that they should be passive in the face of the abuse. They should remain dedicated to their relationship and should not, for example, engage in extra-marital affairs. If they do not conform to these stereotypes then their status as victims is called into question. This is a dangerous precedent to set. Not least because domestic abuse can take place in the context of a variety of different relationships, to people of every socio-economic background, and from every culture, race and religion.
Also, the importance of support services to protect victims of domestic abuse cannot be underestimated. Currently only victims who are at the highest risk of serious harm from their partners, or ex-partners, can access support from Independent Domestic Violence Advisors (IDVAs). The support offered by IDVAs is often invaluable for victims, and can include creating safety plans for the victim to leave their abusive partner, supporting the victim in giving evidence in court and providing emotional support. Despite their invaluable role, the number of IDVAs has decreased as a result of funding cuts and their services are not available to those who are assessed as being at low to medium risk of serious harm.
Domestic violence charities and organisations, who provide the majority of services to victims, are largely funded by local government, and have seen significant loses in their funding. Since 2010, one in six specialist refuges has been lost due to funding cuts. It is clear that demand for the support offered by refuge services is far outstripping supply, with 112 women and their 84 children being turned away from refuges on one day in 2014. Refuges provide emergency accommodation for victims leaving their abusive partner, which is the time when they are most at risk of serious harm or even death, so it is imperative that they receive the funding they need. The Department for Communities and Local Government has committed to a £10 million fund to prevent the closure of specialist refuges, but there are concerns that this is still not enough to offer the degree of support needed for victims.
The support services available for male victims of domestic abuse are significantly underfunded and overlooked. Despite men accounting for approximately 38 per cent of victims of domestic abuse, only 11 organisations offer refuge or safe house provision for male victims in the UK, with a total of 17 spaces dedicated to male domestic violence victims only. This is in contrast to the approximately 4,000 refuge spaces available for female victims.
With 1.1 million women and 720,000 men reporting being domestic violence in the past year, domestic abuse is a significant societal issue. And, clearly more work needs to be done in improving the police and criminal justice agency’s responses to domestic abuse, as well as more investment in the support services which are so valuable to victims.