The statistics of Domestic Violence cases in the UK (and around the world) are nothing less than horrific. In running OnlyMums and OnlyDads we have been led to ask the question what more the law can do to help protect victims. We asked Jane Pritchard, head of Domestic Violence and Housing Law at Blacklaws Davis Solicitors, to give us her thoughts…
When asked to prepare an article on the place the law had in protecting victims, I might have been expected to detail the gaps in service provision and how both the judiciary and police can fail to provide the support required to keep survivors safe. That is not the story I have to tell, because it is not my experience of working on the front line with survivors.
The majority of my case work, as a Social Welfare lawyer, features domestic abuse. However, most of those cases are resolved successfully, often without the need for public funds. Perhaps this is achieved without using traditional legal routes, but in terms of outcomes, the figures tell the story.
In one of the London Boroughs where I work, the Met Police’s crisis intervention officer has developed a partnership that has lead to the rate of repeat victimisation being reduced by over 90 %. This is regardless of changes in legislation and practice directions of the court; This success is driven by dedicated and continuing efforts to develop co-ordinated and effective service delivery. Services can always be improved and developed but the overall picture for survivors is one of success and strength.
I was amazed, when I first experienced this front line working, by how few egos were involved. It was not a matter of who got things done, but how.
Long before the current coalition government started to promote the “big society”, partnerships in the “not for profit” sector were providing strategies to reduce repeat victimisation. This was not driven by pressure on local authority budgets, nor as a response to redundancies, but by the realisation that the law alone would not protect survivors, whether or not they were willing to stop the abuse.
A survivor may obtain a non-molestation order (injunction) in the family courts or support a criminal prosecution against perpetrators in the criminal justice system; but neither of these options on their own is likely to end the abuse and violence.
Usually, any violence has to be very recent before the family courts can grant an injunction without notice to the perpetrator (known as a “without notice” application). The law then demands that the perpetrator is made aware of the order, and given notice of a further “on notice” hearing to take place within a few weeks’ time. This risks provoking a further attack on the survivor. Even if that does not happen, the survivor often fears reprisals. So, must we wait for a further incident of abuse? Understandably, survivors, who have been brave enough to tell others about the abuse, may not be ready to stand up in court and give evidence in front of the perpetrator.
Where does the survivor (and often children) go once the order to protect them from further violence and abuse has been made? Frequently, the fear of the unknown regarding financial provision and housing can be the factor which prevents survivors leaving, or causes them to return to the home from which they fled.
The “One Stop Shop” partnerships bring together a group of talented and committed specialist support workers, drawn from key “not for profit” services, including Victim Support, and Domestic Violence charities alongside the Police and local authority services. Solicitors also attend to provide pro bono advice to every survivor who attends, with immediate follow up action available should they want to follow a legal route. There is never any pressure, only guidance and an open door ever week through which they can return and be supported. However, vitally, all the services on offer complement each other and are comprehensive, ranging from re-housing advice to prevent homelessness, welfare benefit services, counselling, health visitors, and alcohol and substance misuse workers, to empowerment groups and outreach workers.
I worked with a client who had been a victim of abuse all of her life. She had witnessed abuse in the family home growing up, entered into her first abusive relationship at the age of 13 years and been controlled by the same perpetrator for almost 30 years. Where ever she moved, he followed and she lacked security through social housing provision. The courts and police had done what was requested of them, by making orders and responding to allegations of non-crime reports of abuse, but the survivor would always then disappear and return at points of crisis. That she was ever able to make the decision to stop the abuse was an achievement in itself, and again down to the partner agencies who are experts in the empowerment of survivors. The client was then referred to me to assist her with long term re-housing to give her a secure base from which she could start a new life.
We were clear that the private sector would not be able adequately to help her. The local authority decided that she was not in priority need for housing as a homeless person, and so there was no duty to house her. There were no children and we were relying on the evidence of the cycle of abuse that she was attempting to break from, as the basis for saying she was more vulnerable than an ordinary homeless person.
Following representations and support from the police and key workers, the local authority revised their decision and accepted a full duty to house her. For the first time in what seemed like a lifetime, she had the promise of secure housing, support from a local authority in an area not known to the perpetrator, and the all-important overseeing eyes of the crisis intervention team. This could not – and simply would not – have been achieved without a coordinated response.
So what more do we need, or have we developed adequate ways to meet the needs of survivors presenting to our outreach teams?
Worryingly, the current round of spending cuts is affecting the most vulnerable in our society.
Already, partner agencies are less well able to respond to the ever increasing demand for their services. In most geographical areas in which I work, the number of Independent Domestic Violence Advocates (IDVAs) has been reduced by at least 60% within a matter of weeks. These posts are invariably funded by local authorities aiming to save millions from their budgets. Reducing the funding available for IDVAs, at the same time as cuts to police budgets and grants for the “not for profit” sector, means that there will simply not be sufficient numbers of the specialist service providers to deliver the essential services outlined above.
Ironically, the result already is a higher demand on police resources to attend regular and repeat reports of domestic violence, as well as increased demand on the ambulance service, A & E departments, social services teams and primary care trusts.
Sadly, this will lead to poorer outcomes, including deaths, serious injuries and enduring psychological trauma, which could be avoided.
The notion of community members clubbing together to give an hour of free help here and there, and junior city lawyers working on a rota alongside the existing services, is all very admirable but will not deliver what is required. We have a fantastically dedicated and specialist team of domestic violence workers, working alongside lawyers, who have spent their entire careers developing a model that works. Take away the small amounts of funding currently in place to run these services and the future is bleak.
However I will finish as I started, with a message of hope. The news from the front line is that we will continue to stand united and excel in what we do, because we know that the people who need us deserve nothing less.
For details of your local One Stop Shop contact your local council or Community Safety Unit of the police.
Jane Pritchard is head of Domestic Violence and Housing Law at Blacklaws Davis Solicitors.