Child witnesses of domestic abuse should be seen as victims with their needs appropriately met, a committee has warned.
The Joint Committee on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill has recommended changes to the Bill to ensure that all those affected by domestic abuse receive protection and a tailored response to their differing needs.
The committee was particularly concerned to ensure that children who experience domestic abuse, either as witnesses to it or in intimate relationships, are treated as victims and their needs responded to appropriately. In recognition of the fact that survivors of abuse require different support services, the committee recommended that the Bill should require public authorities to have regard to the gendered nature of abuse and provide suitable services accordingly.
Adina Claire, Co-Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, said: "The draft domestic abuse bill is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the response to domestic abuse, so we urge the government to seize this opportunity to take decisive action and help build a society where every survivor receives the life-saving support they need.”
A statement from children's charity Action for Children added: "Similarly to Action for Children, the committee had concerns over the absence of children from the definition, as this could potentially have a negative impact on the support services made available to them. The Bill is a big opportunity to change how we as a society respond to domestic abuse. If children are not in the definition, then they won’t be seen as a priority and won’t get the help they need.
"We are pleased to see that the committee has listened to us, and recommended that the Bill be amended so the status of children as victims of the domestic abuse that occurs in their household is recognised," the statement added.
The draft Bill proposes to establish the role of Domestic Abuse Commissioner to promote best practice in providing services to survivors and perpetrators of domestic abuse. Because of concerns that the Commissioner would not be sufficiently independent of the Home Office and would not have power to enforce recommendations on those providing public services, the committee put forward several changes to the Bill to increase independence, and concluded that government departments should be included among the bodies which would have a duty to co-operate with the Commissioner.
The joint committee's report recommended that the lead Minister on implementing the strategy on domestic abuse should be based in the Cabinet Office, not the Home Office in a bid to encourage cross-departmental and multi-agency working and to support the independence and reach of the Commissioner. The committee considered that overall there should be a complete review of the approach taken to establishing commissioners offices with independence built into each by using the Cabinet Office as the sponsor department.
In relation to courts, the committee strongly supported the proposal to require the provision of special measures such as videolinks and separate waiting rooms to protect witnesses in criminal proceedings from coming into contact with their abusers, but recommended that these measures should be extended to family and other civil courts.
Presently, survivors of abuse may be subjected to cross-examination by the perpetrators in the course of family and other civil proceedings and the committee called for a mandatory ban on this where there is evidence of domestic abuse.
Adina Claire said: "We welcome the committee’s recommendations on strengthening safety and protection for survivors in the court system, including equal access to special measures across all courts, improvements to the proposed ban on cross-examination in the family courts, and urgent reform to bail conditions. However, the draft bill must go beyond the criminal justice system and ensure that survivors are fully supported to rebuild their life after domestic abuse. Every survivor must be able to access specialist domestic abuse services in their area, and all survivors should be considered priority need for housing by their local authority. Survivors continue to tell us that the child contact system is their number one priority for reform; we are still calling for a change to the law to ensure that contact decisions always prioritise a child’s safety in domestic abuse cases."
The committee welcomed the government’s announcement that it plans to introduce a statutory requirement for accommodation support services in England to be provided for survivors of domestic abuse, but said the government needs to provide clarity on how other support services, such as advice and counselling, would be provided and funded under the new statutory duty proposed and what arrangements will be made for the national provision of specialist services to groups such as BAME women and those with disabilities.
Adina Claire said: "We now call on the government to act on these recommendations and create a domestic abuse bill that meets the needs of all survivors, including children, migrant women and disabled women."
The report also said:
- The draft Bill would introduce a new type of Order to protect victims, a Domestic Abuse Prevention Order. The Committee welcomed a number of aspects of these orders but was concerned about the potential for inconsistent application between civil and criminal courts and that the courts would be reluctant to impose the orders in all but the most exceptional of circumstances.
- The committee called on the government to urgently bring forward legislation to increase the length of time suspects can be released on pre-charge bail in domestic abuse cases, and to create a presumption that suspects under investigation for domestic abuse, sexual assault or other significant safeguarding issues only be released from police custody on bail, unless it is clearly not necessary for the protection of the victim.
- Currently, none of the proposed changes to the law on domestic abuse would apply to Northern Ireland, and the lack of a Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly means that this situation would not change. (Scotland has its own Legislation.) The Committee recommends that that the provisions of the draft Bill be extended to Northern Ireland unless and until Northern Ireland enacts its own legislation in this area.
- The committee supported the idea of establishing a firewall to separate reporting of crime and access to support services from immigration control.
Adina Claire said: "The report recognises the insurmountable barriers that migrant women face in escaping abuse and accessing life-saving support. We are pleased that the Committee urges the government to dismantle ‘Hostile Environment’ policies that prevent migrant survivors from reporting to the police, and to expand the Destitute and Domestic Violence Concession without delay. Migrant women have fundamental rights to safety and dignity, regardless of their immigration status."
Action for Children concluded: "It is clear that the committee's report is extremely comprehensive, and that they have taken the needs of children, as well as other groups of people with specific needs, into account.
"What remains to be seen is how the government, which has tried hard to engage with some of the concerns and ideas raised so far, but is also soon to be under the leadership of a new Prime Minister, take their recommendations forward," the statement concluded.