In these locked down days, divorce solicitors and domestic abuse charities have reported a huge increase in cries for help from people affected by domestic abuse.
Its awful, but unsurprising. Relationship breakdown is tough at the best of times but being locked down 24/7 in a tense relationship must be unbearable. For those with children, illness, or worries about jobs or money, the combination can be explosive, and as time goes by its becoming more and more so, with tensions igniting horribly abusive behaviours.
For obvious reasons, its harder than ever for victims of domestic abuse to seek support. Abusers are rarely out of earshot and victims may feel – wrongly – that the rules prevent them from leaving home.
The lockdown and social distancing rules have caused confusion. The guidance given sets out what help is available, how it can be accessed, what legal options a person may have and clarification of the social distancing rules for domestic abuse situations.
These regulations came into force on the 26th March 2020, implementing the lockdown and social distancing rules. A person can leave their household in limited circumstances, which include the following points relevant to domestic abuse situations:
- To fulfill a legal obligation, including attending Court or satisfying bail conditions or to participate in legal proceedings;
- To access critical public services, including services provided to victims (such as victims of crime);
- To avoid injury or illness or to escape a risk of harm.
The police have also issued guidance. This is important. It states, amongst other things, that a person can leave their household to go to a friend or family’s home, for a ‘cooling-off period’ after an argument. So physical violence or abuse is not even necessary to justify moving out: the very fact of any argument which requires a period for emotions to calm down will suffice. Clearly the aim is to allow parties to pre-empt the abuse where possible.
How Your Solicitor Can Help: Injunctions
Swift and decisive action can be taken for you by your solicitor. As well as contacting the Police, you can seek emergency injunctions for your protection. The advantages over criminal proceedings tend to be that the family law courts give you just a little more control, as orders can be made immediately and are not subject to ongoing bail conditions or many months awaiting criminal trial. The result of a family law application is a civil injunction and would generally does not impact employability, whereas a criminal conviction might give your partner a criminal record seriously impacting employability – and therefore any maintenance payments on which you may depend. Family law injunctions are therefore often preferable, and can be as follows:
- A non-molestation order is an injunction to protect a party and/or their children. The family courts are able to make orders designed to prevent a partner or ex-partner from using or threatening violence, or from intimidating, harassing, or pestering them directly or indirectly via texts, social media etc. If you succeed in obtaining such an order and it is then breached, that is a criminal offence and the police have power to arrest them.
- An occupation order regulates who can live in the family home. It can also be used to set out in detail when each party can use certain areas of the house, communal areas (for example the kitchen) and so on. If tensions are so high that a person does not feel safe, they can apply for an occupation order. It will take effect immediately on being served on the other party, and is an incredibly powerful tool, potentially forcing someone to move out of their home. Bear in mind, however, that under lockdown conditions it will be more important than ever to persuade a court of the overwhelming need for such an order, and the key to success will probably be the ability to show that that person has a suitable alternative place to live.
Applications for these injunctions can be made despite many family courts being closed and hearings in person currently as rare as hen’s teeth. Hearings nowadays are generally by phone or video conferencing, depending on the circumstances.
Police – 999 and the ‘Silent Solutions’ system
The Police have improved their responses and understanding of domestic abuse enormously over recent years. They have introduced a system to help victims get police help even if they are unable to speak when they call the police:
- Calling 999 from a landline – if you do not speak and do not answer the operator’s questions, but the operator can hear background noise or believes the caller is in danger, the call will be connected to a Police handler.
- Calling 999 from a mobile – you will hear a message asking you to press various numbers (eg, 5 5) if you need Police assistance but cannot speak out loud. The call will then be transferred to the Police handler, who will ask questions requiring a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer only.
Domestic Abuse Charites/Organisations/Apps
There are many organisations, helplines and apps which offer advice and help to domestic abuse victims, some of which are listed below:
- Women’s Aid – www.womensaid.org.uk
- Freephone National Domestic Abuse Helpline, run by Refuge – 0808 200 0247 www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk
- Apps – Bright Sky (support and information) and Hollie Guard (personal safety app- if phone shaken or tapped, sends alert to your emergency contacts).
Women’s Aid also has practical steps to ‘cover your tracks’ so that an abuser cannot find out that a person has been seeking advice, such as deleting all browser history or search in a ‘incognito/private window’ and deleting all texts, call logs from mobiles, as well as making calls when you are outside of the home shopping or taking exercise.