The Bristol Civil and Family Justice Centre held a session on 26 May 2016 to provide more information to court staff and Personal Support Unit volunteers about domestic abuse. The packed court heard from the probation service, Next Link and a service user.
The session started off with some statistics: 95% of people who contact Next Link and the police for help from domestic abuse are women. Two women every week are killed by a partner or former partner. 62% of children who live in a household where domestic abuse occurs will be directly physically harmed by the abuse. All children who live in a domestic abuse household will be emotionally harmed.
The speakers explained that domestic abuse is not about anger, but about power and control. The type of abuse that occurs can be physical, emotional, psychological, sexual or financial. As well as violence and threats of violence examples were given of other types of abuse, such as: undermining the victim's parenting abilities; blaming; shaming; isolating the victim; controlling money; being cruel to pets; revenge porn; emotional blackmail; harassment; and stalking. The psychological effects can result in anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. These forms of domestic abuse chip away at the victim's confidence with the intention of making the victim compliant to their abuser.
The audience was taken through the meaning of coercive control (a purposeful pattern of incidents that occur over time in order for one individual to exert power, control or coercion over another), which became a criminal offence in December 2015 and carries a 5-year sentence (see s 76, Serious Crime Act 2015).
We heard from one survivor who explained that she suffered from such subtle forms of coercive control that she hadn't been able to identify her ex-partner's behaviour as being a form of domestic abuse. Due to there being no physical violence it was hard for her to realise the impact his actions were having on her life and the lives of her children.
The speakers explained that attending court can be terrifying for a victim, who may be facing their abuser for the first time since escaping the relationship. Some perpetrators of abuse can also try to manipulate the court process and may come across as charming. Screens, separate waiting rooms and entry to and from the courtroom can help victims of domestic abuse cope with their court experience.
Amongst the panel was a speaker from the probation service, who explained that many index offences committed by women offenders are underpinned by a domestic abuse relationship. 42% of women involved with the probation service have emotional and well-being issues linked to relationships. Since the 2007 Corston Report was published the probation service has taken a holistic approach to working with women. The probation service also works with the perpetrators of domestic abuse. The Building Better Relationships programme is an intense course for higher risk offenders and the RSVP 10-week programme is for offenders displaying mild to moderate abusive behaviour. Cafcass can make referrals to the Building Better Relationships programme. The speakers explained that there is a lot of support out there for victims of domestic abuse, but one of the barriers to victims accessing it is lack of awareness of its existence.
Next Link's primary role is to perform risk assessments and give options and practical help to victims of domestic abuse. They also work closely with Missing Link (for mental health) and Safe Link (which helps victims of rape and sexual assault).
More information about the organisations can be found here.