A virulent epidemic has been playing out behind closed doors in the UK over the past year. It is not, however, viral in nature. Instances of domestic abuse have spiralled dramatically over the past 12 months amid a year punctuated by stay-at-home orders and social distancing restrictions, as the government has battled to maintain control of the Covid-19 crisis.
A surge in domestic abuse reports
Refuge, a UK charity that supports women, children and men who are experiencing domestic violence, has revealed that it has seen a surge in appeals for help amid the lockdown landscape. New statistics released by the charity in March 2021 make for troubling reading. It recorded an average of 13,162 calls and messages to its National Domestic Abuse Helpline every month between April 2020 and February 2021, a figure that represents a 60% increase compared to the average number of monthly contacts at the start of 2020, before the first nationwide lockdown in March.
Of the 131,000 calls or messages logged by Refuge between April 2020 and February 2021, 72% were from women who said they were experiencing violence and abuse. In almost a fifth of cases, their abuser had threatened to kill them. Lisa King, Director of Communications and External Relations at the charity, said: “Lockdown measures, where women have been isolated and confined with their perpetrators, have compounded their exposure to violence and abuse.”
The problem is not confined to female victims. Respect, a charity that runs an advice helpline for male victims of domestic abuse, saw a year-on-year increase of 70% and 64% respectively with regard to the number of calls and emails it received in May 2020, compared to the same month in 2019.
The most recent figures available from the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) show a 7% increase in offences recorded by police that were flagged as domestic abuse-related between March and June 2020 in England and Wales. At first glance, this does not appear to be unusual – as the ONS points out, “there has been a gradual increase in these offences over recent years, therefore it cannot be determined whether this can be directly attributed to the coronavirus pandemic”.
However, when analysed in more granular detail, the ONS data tells its own story. There was a spike in demand for domestic abuse victim support services between April and June 2020 (the period coinciding with the duration of the first UK lockdown), with Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline logging a 65% increase in calls and contacts over the three-month period, compared to the first quarter of the year.
The contrast between the number of recorded domestic-abuse related offences and the number of contacts received by charities such as Refuge during the first lockdown is stark. The figures appear to bear out what charities consistently point out: many victims of domestic abuse do not report it to the police.
Lockdown lifting spells new dangers
There is a particular concern among campaigners and charities as the UK begins to exit its latest lockdown and daily life starts to return to a semblance of normality. Refuge has warned that this can be an extremely dangerous time for those fleeing abusers or seeking help now that the stay-at-home order has been rescinded.
Under the UK’s stringent lockdown rules, escaping domestic abuse was one of the exemptions for leaving the home. However, Refuge has pointed out that in the aftermath of the first lockdown in 2020, there was a rise in the number of women requiring emergency accommodation. Figures cited by the ONS support the idea that relaxed national restrictions will lead to a heightened need for support for domestic abuse victims. For example, Victim Support, a charity dedicated to helping victims of crime and traumatic incidents in England and Wales, saw a 12% week-on-week rise in the number of domestic abuse cases handled in the first week that lockdown restrictions were eased in mid-May 2020.
The government has taken steps to address the problem. Domestic abuse charities and services were bolstered by £2 million in initial funding for helplines and web-based services to ensure frontline support measures remained operational in the early stages of the pandemic.
The Treasury’s £750 million packages to support charities, part of the April 2020 budget, earmarked £76 million to go towards supporting the victims of sexual violence, domestic abuse, modern slavery and vulnerable children and their families.
The Home Office has said that overall, the government has given more than £27 million to domestic abuse organisations to help them deal with the effects of the pandemic.
And at the start of March 2021, the government proposed a raft of new amendments to the existing Domestic Abuse Bill, laying out a number of new laws that will seek to further protect victims.
5 Steps to Achieving a Successful Domestic Violence Application
- File a police report (if appropriate)
Domestic abuse or violence is a crime and should be reported to the police. There are also other organisations that can offer you help and support. Contact your local neighbourhood policing team. Call 999 if it’s an emergency or you’re in immediate danger. The police take domestic violence seriously and will be able to help and protect you.
- Contact Refuge or another domestic violence charity
An agency/refuge can help you to access specialist refuge accommodation or find refuge vacancies for you and any dependents. They can also help you find other specialist services in your community, which can provide support whether or not you have left your partner. To view a list of organisations that can help, visit: gov.uk/report-domestic-abuse
- Apply for a Destitution Domestic Violence (DDV) Concession
This concession is available for the spouse, civil partner, unmarried or same sex partner of a British citizen, or someone present and settled in the UK. To qualify those applying for the concession need to also: have seen that relationship break down due to domestic violence; be someone who is destitute and in need of financial help; and be a person who intends to make a claim to stay permanently in the UK under domestic violence provisions of Appendix FM of the UK’s immigration rules.
- Legal aid
You might be able to get legal aid if you have evidence that you or your children have been victims of domestic abuse or violence and you cannot afford to pay legal costs. You do not have to get evidence before talking to a legal aid solicitor or Civil Legal Advice, but they’ll need to see it before deciding whether you are entitled to legal aid. See gov.uk/legal-aid/domestic-abuse-or-violence
- Make an application
Finally, you can instruct your solicitor to make your application. The Home Office will allow someone who has come to the UK under Appendix FM to stay in the country permanently if the relationship breaks down because of domestic violence.