Child witnesses of domestic abuse should be seen as victims, says report

Joint Committee on Draft Domestic Abuse Bill makes recommendations for change

Published on 15th June 2019

Children who experience domestic abuse should be seen as victims, a joint committee on the draft Domestic Abuse Bill has said.

The recommended changes to the Bill are 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.

Action for Children said: "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 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," the charity added.

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.

The draft Bill also proposes the role of Domestic Abuse Commissioner to promote best practice in providing services to survivors and perpetrators of domestic abuse. However, 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 Committee also 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 made other recommendations for changes to the draft Bill before it is brought back to Parliament. These include:

- 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.

- Currently, survivors of abuse may be subjected to cross-examination by the perpetrators in the course of family and other civil proceedings but the Committee has called for a mandatory ban on this where there is evidence of domestic abuse.

- The government’s announcement to introduce a statutory requirement for accommodation support services in England to be provided for survivors of domestic abuse was welcomed by the committee. However, the report recommends that the government provides 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.

- The draft Bill's proposal to introduce a new type of Order to protect victims, a Domestic Abuse Prevention Order, was welcomed but the committee 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.

Mrs Maria Miller MP, Chair of the Joint Committee, said: “The government’s draft bill on Domestic Abuse has been widely welcomed by organisations representing survivors of Domestic Abuse and those providing support services. The Bill is the culmination of many months of work and consultation and has been said by the sector to be a ‘once in a generation opportunity to address domestic violence’ and having ‘the potential to create a step change in the national response’.

“The committee has made detailed and wide-ranging recommendations that affect many aspects of the Bill, drawing from the excellent evidence we have received including oral evidence from those who have survived domestic abuse themselves. These include important recommendation relating to the treatment of children and migrant women, the importance of cross-departmental working in prevention and early intervention and the need for Commissioners to be fully independent and have the powers they need to enforce improvements in the provision of services," she added.

Adina Claire, Co-Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, 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.

"We urge the government to listen to the Committees’ proposals to give the Domestic Abuse Commissioner the power to deliver real change. Requiring the Commissioner to report directly to the Cabinet Office, and insisting that government department co-operate with the Commissioner, could give this role the authority it needs to oversee a whole-society response to domestic abuse.

"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," she concluded.

Draft Domestic Abuse Bill

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