“COVID-19 and Domestic Violence – How can I seek advice during lockdown?”
Relationships are never easy, even at the best of times, and we all experience arguments and disputes from time to time.
What can be done, however, when that behaviour crosses the line and amounts to physical abuse, psychological abuse, threatening, coercive or controlling behaviour?
Since Part IV of the Family Law Act 1996 came into force, the Courts have enjoyed the powers to make Non-Molestation Orders forbidding a party from threatening, harassing, molesting or pestering their spouse. Under the same Act the Courts have also had the power, in very serious cases, to regulate the occupation of the family home either by excluding the abusive party from the property entirely or from a part of it.
The Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 extended the ability to make those Orders to include a wider group of individuals, such as cohabitees, and made a breach of Non-Molestation and Occupation Orders a criminal offence backed with a power of arrest.
The introduction of the Serious Crime Act 2015 recognised that serious controlling or coercive behaviour between individuals with a “personal connection” can itself amount to a criminal offence which has also resulted in serious behaviour of this sort also warranting the making of Non-Molestation and Occupation Orders.
The Courts have the power, therefore, to make Orders not only where there is an element of physical abuse but also where there is serious behaviour which seeks to coerce or control an individual such as by limiting their access to family, friends, money or even contact via social media.
Often behaviour of this sort goes hand in hand with an attempt to persuade an individual that they are imagining it through the process colloquially known as “gaslighting”.
Whilst the behaviour has to be serious before the Court will intervene it can, nonetheless, often be difficult to realise the gravity or frequency of the behaviour.
Unfortunately, the evidence points to the fact that abusive behaviour has become more frequent and prevalent during isolation and lockdown.
Data from Hubei Province in China suggested that the incidence of domestic violence during lockdown in February had trebled. Similarly, over 25 organisations offering help to domestic violence victims in the UK have reported a significant increase in their caseload since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. One group, in particular, stated that an analysis of their online traffic showed that visitors to its website had more than trebled in March this year compared with the same month last year.
To compound matters, many domestic abuse charities have indicated that they have been forced to reduce their services, either as a result of staff illness and self-isolation or an inability to offer face-to-face meetings, just as the pressure on their services has spiked.
It is, of course, imperative to minimise the effect of any difficulties between adults in a relationship upon children. Allowing children to be exposed to domestic violence or abusive behaviour in the home is likely to have a long lasting detrimental effect upon their welfare and development.
The first port of call in any violent or dangerous situation should be to call the Police on 999 and to use the silent solution of 55 if it is not possible to speak. The Police have powers to remove an individual from the home if their behaviour is sufficiently serious and to charge them with the appropriate offence where that behaviour amounts to a criminal offence.
Where the behaviour is less serious, advice should be taken from a solicitor as to whether the behaviour is sufficiently grave to warrant an application for a Non-Molestation or Occupation Order. It will help the solicitor if you have been able to put together a detailed record of the behaviour, of specific incidents and other evidence of the behaviour such as e-mails, texts or WhatsApp messages.
Alternatively, there are many organisations who offer help and support and from whom information can be obtained online during isolation and lockdown. The Women’s Aid website has some helpful information on how to cover your tracks online after accessing that information. These are some of the agencies that can assist:
nationaldahelpline.org.uk or 0808 2000 247;
mensadviceline.org.uk or 0808 801 0327;
mankind.org.uk or 01823 334244;
galop.org.uk/domesticabuse/ or 0800 999 5428;
karmanirvana.org.uk or 0800 599 9247.
Neil Graham, a Partner at Grayfords says: “Violence and abusive behaviour should have no place in relationships and preventing children from being subjected to such behaviour is an absolute priority. At Grayfords we regularly advise individuals upon the possibility of and processes involved in obtaining Non-Molestation and Occupation Orders. We can offer initial consultations via telephone, Skype or Zoom, or initial contact can be made with us via e-mail or via our live chat facility at www.grayfords.co.uk”.