The year has started with a number of violent attacks on women and children, highlighting once again the prevalence of domestic abuse in our communities and the dreadful consequences. On average, each week in England and Wales two women are murdered by a partner or former partner, and sometimes children are killed or injured too. That is not to say that all domestic abuse is perpetrated by men upon women, as we are well aware that women can be perpetrators too, and violent or abusive behaviour also occurs in gay and lesbian families. No type of family set-up can be considered to be immune from the possibility of abuse. But the news this year so far has highlighted the frightening frequency with which women’s lives are taken by men they share, or have shared, their homes with.
It is with this background that the government is asking for comments on whether the current cross-government definition of domestic violence should be widened. It also seeks views from stakeholders on whether the current definition is being applied consistently across government, and if it is sufficiently understood by practitioners, victims and perpetrators. The consultation is open to the public.
You can find the consultation document here.
This is the current definition of domestic violence used by the government:
‘any incident of threatening behaviour, violence or abuse [psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional] between adults who are or have been intimate partners or family members, regardless of gender or sexuality’.
The government considers that this definition includes female genital mutilation, forced marriage and so-called ‘honour-crimes’. As you can see, it is confined to adults – an adult is any person aged 18 and over, and family members are interpreted as mother, father, son, daughter, brother, sister and grandparents; directly-related, in-laws or step-family.
The definition is important as it is used by government departments to inform policy development and, for example, by police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the UK Border Agency, to inform the identification of domestic violence cases. It is not a statutory definition. The courts have their own, slightly wider definitions: see for example Yemshaw v London Borough of Hounslow  UKSC 3 in relation to housing, which adapted the definition used in a family law context, in the President’s Practice Direction (Residence and Contact Orders: Domestic Violence) (No 2) (2009) 1 WLR 251, para 2: “‘Domestic violence’ includes physical violence, threatening or intimidating behaviour and any other form of abuse which, directly or indirectly, may give rise to the risk of harm.”
There are four options up for consideration in this consultation: that the definition of domestic violence remains the same; that the definition of domestic violence is amended to include coercive control (considered to be a complex pattern of abuse using power and psychological control over another including financial control, verbal abuse, and forced social isolation); that the government’s definition of domestic violence is extended to all 16- to 17-year-olds; and that the government’s definition of domestic violence is extended to all those under 18.
It is worth mentioning that this consultation comes hot on the heels of another government consultation about domestic violence and whether there should be a disclosure scheme so that people can find out whether previous partners have convictions. (This consultation is now closed but see here for details.)
The coalition has said in its strategic vision ‘Call to End Violence Against Women and Girls’ that it is committed to stamping out domestic abuse. Despite the unfortunately narrow title of the ‘vision’ document, we should all be committed to removing the threat of domestic violence and abuse from families in our communities. It is worth noting here that many people believe that the government’s proposed cuts to legal aid will have a significantly detrimental impact on the prospects for those suffering from and trying to escape domestic abuse (see here, here and here for example). It is probably not controversial to point out that a commitment to stamping out domestic abuse needs to be properly funded and adequately resourced throughout the process, both for victims and perpetrators.
If you have a little time, please do read the consultation and respond to it if you have views to share. We may not be able to save the futures of the adults and children killed and injured already this year by family members or former family members, but the more of us that make our voices heard when the government asks for input on matters of domestic abuse, the more seriously it might take the issue and the more futures we might help to preserve.
The consultation closes on 30 March 2012.