Where domestic violence victims can find help during the coronavirus lockdown

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  • Calls to the UK's national abuse hotline went up by 65% this weekend, as thousands of women forced to live in lockdown with abusive partners called for help. With charities increasingly alarmed and resources stretched, solicitor Shanika Varga explains where to seek life-saving help

    For many of us, home is our safe sanctuary during this global pandemic but it’s also a universal fact that home is the most dangerous place in the world for women. Domestic violence affects more than a million women in the UK every year. And now we are in lockdown, this unprecedented measure poses life-threatening risks for these women and their children.

    Multiple support services have reported a surge in calls to helplines, while the Metropolitan police said they had made 4,093 arrests for domestic abuse offences – an average of about 100 a day – since 9 March, when people with coronavirus symptoms were asked to self-isolate.

    According to Chinese reports, a surge in domestic violence has already been seen there, with #AntiDomesticViolenceDuringEpidemic trending on Sina Weibo, the Chinese social media platform since the beginning of the pandemic. So here in the UK – where last year 1.6 million women in England and wales experienced domestic violence – concerns are mounting. With Deputy Chief Constable Louisa Rolfe, from West Midlands Police, stating that incidents could ‘increase by three-fold’ over the coming weeks, many are fearful we could be facing a ‘domestic abuse pandemic.’

    Victims are seeing all their options for help and protection evaporating. Many would normally wait to be by themselves before they seek help, such as their abuser going to work. Lockdown poses a significant threat to victims of domestic violence for many reasons. Most notably, it gives abusers a larger time frame to be physically harmful. This means that the usual tell-tale signs of domestic violence, such as marks or bruises, will likely have faded by the time women or children are free to leave their homes.

    Domestic abuse can also, of course, be mental and financial, as well as physical. Many abusers could use the impact of Covid-19 to exaggerate worry of potential loss of jobs and income to control victims. Lockdown means extended family and friends have to stay away, making it harder for loved ones to step in to protect victims.

    MPs within the home affairs select committee are now demanding a government action plan of funding for support services to tackle increasing levels of domestic abuse under the lockdown, warning that without intervention, ‘society will be dealing with the devastating consequences for a generation‘.

    On Tuesday April 28th, the domestic abuse bill returns to parliament for its second reading. It includes the creation of a statutory definition of domestic abuse, which includes emotional, coercive and economic abuse as well as physical violence, plus the creation of the first domestic violence commissioner, Nicole Jacobs, and tougher sentences in cases involving children. However, it has still been criticised for not going far enough to help vulnerable women, and none of the £16.6m pledged by the government earlier this year to help fund domestic abuse refuges has yet reached those providing services.

    During this global public pandemic, we too have a responsibility to be on high alert to our friends and loved ones who are in abusive relationships and feel especially vulnerable in a time when social isolation is the new normal.

    In this frightening and uncertain time, there are a number of steps available to protect yourself or friends and family you may be concerned about.

    domestic violence victims

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    1. If in immediate danger, call 999

    Where someone is in immediate danger, they should call 999 and try to get to a safe place in the house, for example the bathroom where the door can be locked. The police, where appropriate, will take protective action and prosecute an abuser.

    2. Call on local and national charities for help

    There are local and national charities, such as Refuge and Women’s Aid, who provide immediate refuge and emotional support. Emotional support will be provided for as long as it is needed including accompanying a victim to court and providing counselling and a support network.

    3. Pack an emergency bag

    It’s helpful for many victims to pack a bag that they can grab in an emergency. This should include their passport, some money, clean clothes and a phone charger. Of course, this isn’t always possible, as it’s vital the abuser does not detect this, so victims should consider whether a friend of family member can keep a spare set of clothes and their passport for them out of the house. Arranging a collection spot with a friend or family member if you have to leave the property quickly can provide protection as often in emergency situations, clear thinking isn’t possible. Having a safe word or phrase to text or email to a trusted friend or family member is also something to consider.

    4. Seek legal advice

    The police can take criminal action against an abuser but not all victims will want that to happen, particularly where the dynamic is not so straight forward such as parent and child. In these situations, civil law remedies are available such as non molestation order which protect a victim form harassment and physical, sexual or psychological molestation. Orders of this nature can regulate communication and prevent an abuser from coming within a certain distance of the victim. In some circumstances they can be tailored to allow for the victim and abuser to remain in the same home but still provide protection. Non molestation orders carry a power of arrest so if they are breached the police will be able to assist. These orders can be applied for without the other person being aware, urgently or by giving the other person notice and a solicitor will be able to explore which is the most appropriate. They typically last for a year but if the behaviour recommences after the order has expired, a further application can be made.

    An occupation order is another form of protective order that can be made by the court. They regulate occupation of a property but do not affect legal ownership. Because they override proprietary rights to a property the court will seldom grant this order without the other party being notified beforehand. This is different to a non-molestation order where the court recognises that a party does not have a right to inflict harm on another and therefore orders can be made without the other party being given prior notice.

    5. Open up to a friend or family member you can trust

    To friends and family concerned about a loved one, reach out and speak to them, it might be the gentle nudge they need to escape an abusive relationship. In what is already a difficult time we need to take extra care in looking after each other. And victims should turn to a friend of family member who can make a call to a hotline on their behalf should they not be able to do so themselves. What is important to remember that there is help out there so do not feel alone. It is always advisable to seek legal advice in relation to the options available to protect yourself or a friend or family member. A solicitor will explain the court process and criteria in more detail.

    Help is here! Please contact any of the following charities that are here to help you:

    * Shanika Varga is a solicitor in the Leeds office at Stowe Family Law

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