07 May 2020
Emergency measures and the Coronavirus pandemic
“Stay at Home, protect our NHS and save lives” has been the message in England since 23 March 2020 as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic which has gripped the world. The assumption is that home is the safest place to be, which will be the case for many people. However, for victims of domestic abuse, the opposite is true. Their lives are now more at risk than ever.
The current crisis has created instability and uncertainty regarding the future of the economy as well as the society in which we live. Many people are losing their jobs and income, some may be working with the added responsibility of caring for children or parents full time and others may be dealing with bereavement or the fear of losing loved ones or catching the virus itself. The lockdown has not only reinforced the isolation felt by many people who are already victims of domestic abuse but aggravated what was most probably a potentially dangerous situation.
According to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline, there has been a 25% increase in calls since the lockdown was initiated. This week, the Financial Times writes that the charity Refuge has reported a 49% increase in calls to about a 400 a day.
However, this crisis is not just affecting the UK. The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is calling for measures to address a “horrifying global surge in domestic violence” aimed at women and girls linked to lockdowns imposed by governments responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Home Office has launched a support campaign called 'You Are Not Alone' to help those experiencing domestic abuse during the coronavirus lockdown, and domestic abuse services are set to receive an extra £2m in funding. More recently, it was announced that domestic abuse charities will share in a £76 million Government handout to help provide safe spaces and helplines for victims. It is yet to be seen whether these measures will make a meaningful difference.
So what remedies are available to victims?
First and foremost, victims should not hesitate to call 999 if they consider themselves or their children to be at risk of significant harm.
Secondly, they should consider contacting national and local charities such as Refuge and Women’s aid who have helplines available 24/7 and lots of useful information on their websites. The BBC has also created a comprehensive list of the helplines on its website, which can be found here.
Thirdly, there are legal remedies available as the Courts are still prioritising domestic abuse injunctions, i.e. non-molestation and occupation orders. It is therefore still possible to issue and have an urgent hearing and comply with the lock down / social distancing rules. Here is an overview of the legal remedies available.
Molestation covers a wide range of behaviours from controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse, all of which can be psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional, to more subtle incidents or patterns of behaviour which aim to isolate, humiliate, intimidate, frighten or punish someone.
A non-molestation order applies to most types of relationships with the aim being to stop the assailant from pestering, attacking, threatening, intimidating or harassing the victim and children.
When considering such an application, the Court’s focus is on the effect of the behaviour in question and whether judicial intervention is required to control the assailant’s behaviour. The aim of the court will be to secure the health, safety and wellbeing of the applicant and any children.
Evidence should therefore focus on the behaviour of the assailant with an emphasis on the most recent act or series of acts which has brought about the application, as well as the effect the behaviour is having on the victim.
One of the trickier issues which practitioners will have to deliberate during lockdown is whether the application should be issued with or without notice to the assailant. In usual circumstances, clients are often afraid of how their partners will react when they find out about the application. Therefore the appropriateness of notice, even if the Court has abridged service, will vary and depend on the facts of the case. If the molestation is occurring between cohabitees, it may not be practicable to have an application without notice. However, in situations where the victim is at risk of significant harm, notice of the application may put them in more danger.
A non-molestation order is a valuable remedy for victims as a breach of the order amounts to a criminal offence and the police have the power to arrest.
Occupation orders regulate who can live in a property or even in which areas of the house they can be if there is sufficient space. They often go hand in hand with non-molestation orders when victims live with their assailant.
The main consideration that the court will have is whether the applicant and children are likely to suffer significant harm as a result of the assailant’s conduct if an order is not made. This will then be balanced against the harm that may be caused to the assailant if the order is made. The evidence in this application must cover practical points such as alternative places where the assailant could live, their financial resources, needs and so forth. In usual circumstances, the assailant is more likely to have alternatives available to them such as hotel, family or friends with whom they can stay. It is therefore likely that any applications for occupation orders, which are draconian at the best of times, will require compelling evidence and a degree of proportionality to persuade a Judge of the appropriateness of the Order. It will also be unadvisable to apply without notice save in extreme cases.
A power of arrest can also be attached to an occupation order.
In conclusion, nobody should ever suffer in silence. Domestic abuse needs stopping before it gets worse. Victims need to know that there is a range of protective measures available to help them.
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This publication is not intended to provide a comprehensive statement of the law and does not constitute legal advice and should not be considered as such. It is intended to highlight some issues current at the date of its preparation. Specific advice should always be taken in order to take account of individual circumstances and no person reading this article is regarded as a client of this firm in respect of any of its contents.
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