Getting help when suffering domestic abuse during coronavirus

Help and guidance if you are feeling trapped and threatened in your own home during this time

Domestic abuse options for help
Help available for victims of domestic abuse

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week and the theme is kindness which is particularly relevant as we deal with the strain of living in lockdown. Unfortunately as a result of situation we find ourselves in, the pandemic has shone a rather dim light on those that do not feel safe in their own home. There has been a worryingly large increase in cries for help from people affected by domestic abuse in their home as reported by the police, domestic abuse charities and family law solicitors.

The UK government’s definition of domestic abuse in the new Domestic Abuse Bill is “any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender and sexuality. The abuse can encompass, but not limited to psychological, physical, sexual, financial, and emotional.”

The breakdown of a relationship is always difficult even in 'normal times' but being locked down 24/7 in a tense relationship must be intolerable. If there was already an undercurrent of potential domestic abuse there will be little doubt that the difficulties of lockdown would only heighten the tensions in that household. 

The frightening scenario for a victim is that they will feel trapped and unable to do anything about it. They may possibly feel helpless in protecting themselves and their children in a house they share with an abuser who is in earshot of any phone call they may make.

Earlier in May, the Government eased lockdown to a degree but not to the extent that makes a huge difference to victims living with an abuser. Ultimately, we are currently still in lockdown. The fact that an individual can go outside more than once for their daily exercise may help those who feel they are in a dangerous situation to find an escape although there will be many people suffering who are unable to use daily exercise as an “excuse” to leave the home.

In a week whereby we are all trying to look after one another’s mental health and wellbeing we have tried to set out some guidance in this area: what help is available, how it can be accessed and what legal options a victim may have.

The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England Regulations 2020)

These regulations, which came into force at the end of March and remain relevant from 10 May 2020, set out 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 fulfil 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 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 of this guidance is to allow parties to pre-empt the abuse where possible.

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 options, one being 55 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, including:

  • Women’s Aid - offering 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 searching 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
  • Refuge freephone National Domestic Abuse Helpline– 0808 200 0247
  • Hestia's Bright Sky App - providing support and information
  • Hollie Guard Personal Safety App - if phone shaken or tapped, alerts will be sent to your emergency contacts

Injunctions- Using Family Law Solicitors- The Family Law Act 1996

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 which generally does not impact employability, whereas a criminal conviction might result in giving your partner a criminal record. This outcome seriously impacts 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 an order is then breached, that is a criminal offence and the police have power to arrest.
  • 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 (such as 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. 

Domestic abuse is against the law and can have a profound impact on mental health. If you require advice on any legal issues relating to this issue please contact our Family Team on 01733 882800 or email info@hcsolicitors.co.uk 

Author: Giuseppe Pingerna, Solicitor

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This article has been prepared for general interest and information purposes only; it does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied on as such. While all possible care has been taken in the preparation of this article, no responsibility for the accuracy and/or correctness of the information and commentary set out in the article, or for any consequences of relying on it, is assumed or accepted by the firm or the authors.