We are in unprecedented times with COVID-19 and its impact on provision of specialist domestic abuse services. Organisations’ like Solace have had to completely change how they operate, moving services online or provided via telephone as well as ensuring that refuge and other supported accommodation services can stay open to support the most vulnerable victim/survivors and their children. Under normal circumstances, spending time indoors is often unsafe for those experiencing domestic abuse, and other forms of VAWG (Violence Against Women and Girls). However, during lockdown the danger to women is exacerbated as they are unable to leave their homes. Survivors are likely to be subject to higher rates of violence and abuse and, as they are increasingly isolated by perpetrators, will find it increasingly difficult to obtain support from family, friends and access local services.
Solace advice lines, which provide casework on top of helpline provision have seen increasingly complex cases coming through where women have managed to flee abusive relationships but who are destitute and homeless. We are trying to ensure that we answer each call on our advice line as it may be the only opportunity for that survivor to leave.
Domestic abuse incidents have already risen in the UK due to nation-wide lockdown, and will no doubt increase over the coming weeks. Indeed, China saw a threefold increase in domestic violence cases during the Covid-19 outbreak. Brazil, Spain, Cyprus, Italy and Germany have also reported a rise in cases of domestic abuse as countries have gone into lockdown.
Women’s refuges are already full and are remaining so due to the lack of move-on accommodation for residents during the current crisis. Even where spaces are available, women with children are worried about the possible health risks due to the prevalence of Covid-19 in refuges across the UK.
The family justice system has changed how it operates. Barristers and Solicitors and the court services are generally still open having moved their services online. The court buildings are closed but court hearings are still taking place remotely by way of Zoom, Skype etc. If you have a hearing coming up contact your solicitor or barrister. If you have no solicitor contact the court.
The family courts are still open remotely and will be able to assist you. If you are suffering from domestic violence you may seek the following orders.
- Non-molestation order: this can protect you and any relevant child from violence or harassment. You can obtain a non-molestation order against someone who has been physically violent or against someone who is harassing, intimidating or pestering you. You can apply for a non-molestation order even if you still want to (or have to) live with your abuser.
- Occupation order: this can order your abuser to move out of the home or to stay away from the home; to keep a certain distance away from the home; to stay in certain parts of the home at certain times or allow you back into the home if you have been locked out.
You must be an associated person to apply to the court for either of the above orders. An associated person would be if you live in the same household as your abuser you will be considered “associated”.
Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the Family Division and Head of Family Justice, released new guidance on COVID-19, The guidance says:
"Taking these competing factors together, whilst the default position should be that, for the time being, all Family Court hearings should be undertaken remotely either via email, telephone, video or Skype, etc [‘remote hearing’], where the requirements of fairness and justice require a court-based hearing, and it is safe to conduct one, then a court-based hearing should take place."
Fiona Dwyer is the CEO of Solace which is the leading violence against women and girls (VAWG) organisation in London. Last year Solace supported almost 23,000 women, men and children across London boroughs. Domestic abuse, in all its wider contexts, is simply a gross violation of human rights. We have been working as an organisation for over 40 years to provide advocacy, crisis and long-term support to victim/survivors of abuse and have supported hundreds of thousands of women who have faced an inexhaustible number of human rights violations during that period.
Hilary Lennox is a barrister at 5SAH called to the Bar of England & Wales, Ireland and Northern Ireland. She is an experienced family practitioner in all areas of family law. She specialises in child abduction, forced marriage, FGM, and domestic violence.