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What is domestic abuse or domestic violence?

View profile for Karen Johnson
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Domestic abuse is defined as any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse. It can occur between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality.

Domestic abuse includes not only physical violence, but also psychological, sexual, financial and emotional abuse, as well as controlling or coercive behaviour.

Examples of abusive behaviours include:

Gas lighting – where the abuser will lie and deliberately distort the truth, questioning the other’s recollection and making them doubt themselves. They may suggest that the victim of gaslighting is imagining it or suffering mental illness. It affects the victim’s perception of reality. This would be a form of psychological abuse. Another might be silent treatment lasting for hours, days or weeks.

Controlling behaviour - designed to make a person compliant and dependant.

Controlling behaviour can include isolating a person from support (e.g. stopping or making it difficult to see friends, family or from going out), depriving them from the ability to be independent (e.g. restricting the use of vehicles, taking prams/pushchairs/car seats with them, no bus or taxi money) and regulating daily behaviour (e.g. monitoring activities via calls, locating apps or surveillance, or insisting a person wear particular clothes or behave in a specific way).

Coercive behaviour - also known as coercive control, this can include assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim (e.g. telling the other that if they leave them they will make sure that they never see the children again; that if they report abuse to the police, Social Services will take children away; or if they don’t do what the abuser wants them to they will make them “pay”).

Sexual abuse – sex or intimate activity which is forced or pressurised. This might include being coerced into sexual practices that a person is not comfortable with, such as including third parties on the basis that if they refuse, they will humiliate them with name calling or will find someone else who will do what they want.

Financial abuse – this might include the abuser having complete control of the finances, restricting their victim’s access to money. It might be necessary to beg for money to do the simplest of things, have every spending decision monitored and questioned.

Having the courage to leave an abusive relationship

Whilst it can take many forms, ultimately domestic abuse has no place in a loving and healthy relationship. However, life is complicated and all too often people who are experiencing domestic abuse will struggle to leave the relationship.

The reasons for those struggles are numerous and varied, and every person and situation is different. For example:

  • The person may not recognise that they are being abused, having been conditioned and groomed over months and years to normalise the abuse.
  • They may have been isolated and controlled to the extent that everything they do is monitored so that it is difficult to seek help.
  • They may be fearful of the consequences if they leave, whether that is because they fear the abuser’s reaction and worry the abuse will worsen or are concerned about the practical issues that will arise such as housing, finances and arrangements for children and don’t know where they stand.

How do I leave an abusive partner?

Step 1 – Reaching out

If you are thinking about leaving a violent or abusive partner, it is important that you understand that you are not alone.

You may feel able to confide in friends or a family member; perhaps people whose friendship predates your relationship with the abuser. Care should be taken to ensure that they are not likely to report back, however, friends and family can prove to be a huge source of emotional and practical support.

Other people that you may wish to talk to include your doctor or nurse, health visitor, teacher or employer. You may also wish to call the free National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247. It is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and provides practical support and guidance.

Step 2 – Make a plan

A plan will help you get out safely if you decide to leave. It can include things such as:

Identifying a safe place to go. This could be a family or friend’s house, or a domestic abuse shelter, and memorise contact numbers in case you lose your phone or are unable to take it with you (if it could be used to track you).

Agree a code word with friends, family or neighbours that could be used to let them know discreetly that you are in trouble.

Think about the things that you would want to take with you if you need to leave quickly. Passports, ID, money and medicines and likely the most important but a few changes of clothes and some overnight items would also be good. If you can, and the items are not likely to be noticed as missing by your abuser, is it possible to leave essential items in the care of friends or family in advance?

Take copies of important documents such as birth certificates, passports, bank statements and financial information for yourself and the children if you can’t get the originals and put in a safe place, such as with a friend or a safety deposit box.

If you have joint accounts, open a bank account in your own name and try to put aside a little money.

Think about when a good time might be to leave. An ideal time would be when your abusive partner is out of the house for work or other reasons. Otherwise, can you think of any plausible reasons for needing to leave the house that they would accept and not insist on coming with you?

Step 3 – Legal advice

Ending any relationship regardless as to whether there is domestic abuse, gives rise to issues such as:

who should divorce whom and on what basis

where the parties and children shall live

how the finances should be divided

what arrangements should be put in place for the children to spend time with each parent.

However, where there has been domestic abuse, this can have an impact upon how these issues are decided and will often require urgent action to be undertaken.

How can a family lawyer help with domestic abuse cases?

The family law courts have a number of measures that they can put in place for your and your children’s protection:

Applying for Non-Molestation Orders - It may be necessary for an application to be made to the court for a non molestation order. This is an order which prohibits the abusive partners from using or threatening violence, harassment or intimidation, or instructing or encouraging anyone else to do so.

A Non-Molestation Order can also prohibit the abusive partner from contacting you directly or indirectly and include provision prohibiting the abusive partner from coming to where you live or work. These orders can also protect the children. Breach of a non molestation order is a criminal offence.

Applying for Occupation Orders - If you wish to remain in the family home, then it may be necessary to obtain an occupation order. This allows the court to make orders regulating your rights of occupation. An order of this type could require your abusive partner to allow you to live in the property, if, for example, they have kicked you out.

Alternatively, it could require the abusive partner to leave the property and deny them the right to come back for a period of time. Breach of an occupation order is considered contempt of court but can have a power of arrest applied. This means that if a breach is reported to the police, they have the power to arrest the abusive partner and bring them before the family court at the earliest opportunity.

Applying for Prohibited Steps Orders, Specific Issue Orders and Child Arrangements Orders - These orders relate to the children. If you decide to leave an abusive relationship, you will need to consider whether to take the children with you.

You may not wish to cause them disruption, but it may be unsafe for them to stay and/or necessary for the children to remain with you because you are and have been their main carer. It is worth remembering that it is well recognised that even where children are directly subjected to domestic abuse, the effects of that abuse on their parent is considered to be harmful.

If you are concerned about the prospect of your abusive partner trying to remove the children from your care or taking them out of school, then emergency applications can be made to the court to prevent this from happening. They will resolve the interim arrangements for the children, with a view to then considering what should happen in the longer term.

Whenever the court is asked to make orders involving children, they will base their decision upon what is in the child’s best interests. Although, there is a general presumption that it is in a child’s best interests to be involved in both parents’ lives, this must be safe. The existence of domestic abuse is likely to have a real impact on what arrangements are put in place.

Step 4 – Other protective measures

If you are facing imminent danger, you should call the police on 999 and try to escape to a place of safety. Many of the behaviours that are considered as abusive are, in themselves or collectively, considered criminal behaviour. The police also have additional protective measures available to them such as warnings for harassment, bail conditions and Domestic Violence Protection Notices and Orders.

The courts can put in place further protection if criminal proceedings are brought, for example, restraining orders, which could prevent your partner from contacting you.

Nobody should have to live in fear of abuse and violence. For more help, support and information call Karen Johnson, a Family Solicitor based in our Colchester office specialising in domestic abuse on 01206 217305 or karen.johnson@birkettlong.co.uk.

Unfortunately we do not have a Legal Aid franchise, so cannot offer advice on that basis.

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