The ‘incurable’ disease of domestic abuse in the UK

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Neelam Sarkaria

Red Box Consulting, London



Gerry Campbell

Red Box Consulting, London



The UK’s coordinated response to preventing and tackling domestic abuse to date is not perfect but it is advanced, although the financial austerity affecting the public, private and voluntary sectors has had a negative impact. The Covid-19 pandemic has, however, heightened the extent of the problem in the UK as media reporting has detailed ‘Lockdown Murders’ and violence. This, we suggest, deflects from the very real longstanding issue of domestic abuse in the UK, and incorrectly correlates domestic abuse with the pandemic.

The UK has a current non-statutory cross government definition of domestic abuse, which was introduced in September 2012 and drives the collective response.

This definition of domestic violence and abuse states:

Any incidentor pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. This can encompass but is not limited to the following types of abuse:

  • psychological

  • physical 

  • sexual

  • financial

  • emotional

Controlling behaviour is ‘a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.’

Coercive behaviour is ‘an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.’

This definition includes ‘honour’-based violence, female genital mutilation (FGM) and forced marriage, and is clear that victims are not confined to one gender, ethnic group or sexual orientation.

It is pertinent to note, however, that this definition will change subject to the satisfactory progress of the Domestic Abuse Bill 2019-2021 through the UK’s parliamentary legal processes.[1]

The dire impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has reality-checked and highlighted the extent of domestic abuse in the UK. The high rate of domestic abuse was present well before the country was placed into a ‘lockdown’ by Her Majesty’s (HM) Government in response to preventing and tackling the spread of Covid-19. Many, nevertheless, are shocked with the reported rise in domestic abuse, whilst other crimes are reported to have fallen by over 25 per cent.[2]

In the year ending March 2019, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that the Crime Survey for England and Wales estimated that 2.4 million people (1.6 million females and 786,000 males) aged 16 to 74 years experienced domestic abuse in the previous 12 months.[3] In the same period police forces in England and Wales recorded 1.316 million domestic abuse incidents, of which 746,219 were domestic abuse-related crimes, an increase of 24 per cent on the previous year.[4] It is estimated that 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner (not including sexual harassment) at some point in their lives. However, some national studies show that up to 70 per cent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime.[5]

The family courts play a vital role in addressing, we assert, the symptoms of domestic abuse and other forms of gender based abuse, as well as the criminal courts when perpetrators are investigated and charged with offences. The courts alone, however, cannot solve the culture of domestic abuse perpetration nor its apparent acceptance by a wider public.

Domestic abuse is not a new phenomenon. It has been widespread in all of our communities as a sustainable incurable disease long before the Covid-19 pandemic and ‘lockdown’ measures, which the current media reports have lost sight of. In May 2020 the UK’s National Police Chief’s Council[6] was reporting that despite the overall crime rate and its contributing offence categories reducing by 25 per cent (as previously highlighted), domestic abuse had increased by four per cent across England and Wales. In real terms this translates into a startling 114,122 domestic abuse incidents, of which 64,672 are criminal offences in a four-week period.[7] Behind every item of data is a real person; is a domestic abuse victim, are their children, who are victims of the domestic abuse too.

There have been in excess of 20 domestic abuse homicides, at least two of which were homicide-suicide crimes. In the first three weeks of the ‘lockdown’ there were 16 domestic abuse homicides in the UK; substantially greater than the average of two per week as is often quoted. Dame Vera Baird, the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales told a panel of Parliamentarians: ‘Counting dead women has got to a total of 16 domestic abuse killings in the last three weeks. We usually say there are two a week; that looks to me like five a week, that’s the size of this crisis.’[8]

The reality is that men and women have not suddenly become violent but rather the violence and coercive and controlling abuse of victims has been magnified as victims unavoidably went into the pandemic ‘lockdown’ with their abusers, leaving them and their children at the mercy of their perpetrator(s). Stress, anxiety, mounting debts, other financial problems and hardship, for example, generated through job loss, loss of overtime payments and substance misuse (alcohol and/or drugs) will exacerbate pre-existing abusive relationships.

That said, what are the likely impacts of the aforementioned factors in those intimate and family relationships where there is no pre-existing violence and abuse? The global financial crises of 2008 and 2014 vividly highlighted the impacts on socio-economics and health and wellbeing. For example, the Ireland and Greece saw increases of suicides of 13 and 17 per cent respectively.[9]

The domestic abuse disease will continue in the UK and other major economies with its associated societal costs as we enter a much predicted recession this year. Unemployment will increase and the impact of performance output will fall to the remaining employees with consequent negative effects on them.[10] Prior to the ‘lockdown’, the UK Government’s Home Office estimated that the social and economic costs of domestic abuse in the year to March 2017 cost the UK economy £66bn, which is likely to increase with a notable escalation in victims and the costs associated with policing, healthcare, social care, housing and justice system provision as well as lost productivity to name but a few.[11]

During the ‘lockdown’, victims could not/were not able to safely access specialist support services in the same way and some services have been unable to adapt to provide safe mediums of contact. Through necessity, those continuing to provide support are now only providing remote contact and support, which is exacerbated by victims’ limited time to make calls safely and seek assistance without the perpetrator’s knowledge or there being an adverse intervention. Of note 7.9 million UK workers have been furloughed from their employment during the ‘lockdown’ using the Coronavirus Job retention Scheme, which started on 1 March 2020.[12]

Domestic abuse perpetrators, also, who acknowledge they need help have not been unable to access or continue their access face-to-face services presenting an extra problem in breaking the cycle of violence and abuse.

The media reporting of the rising number of homicides and two suspected homicides-suicides leading to the deaths of five people including two children has yet again, brought the plight of domestic abuse victims sharply into focus, but for how long? From the outset and in advance of the ‘lockdown’ we and many other campaigners highlighted the devastating impact that such restricted movement would have on domestic abuse victims and survivors to the disbelief of others. The reality of the extent of such violence and abuse was soon laid bare. We campaigners were not exaggerating after all.

Indeed the effects of isolation on domestic abuse victims and with restricted or limited access to services is not new.

The recent surge in domestic abuse resonates with periods such as the annual festive period and the summer holidays. We already know that any period of confinement within the home results in an increase in offending in already violent and abusive relationships. We know that such abuse is exacerbated with alcohol and/or drug consumption and financial challenges. It is pertinent to note that while many businesses were forced to close with the exception of grocery stores during the ‘lockdown’, interestingly off licence sales of alcohol were permitted as ‘essential goods’.

The UK Government quickly made it clear that ‘lockdown’ restrictions did not prevent victims from leaving their homes to seek help and secure their safety. In addition, the pandemic has forced organisations and institutions such as the courts to modify their operating models to deliver justice more efficiently. The courts have adapted to operate remotely using telephone links too, enabling applications to be made for emergency applications of Non-Molestation Orders to obtain injunctive relief to prevent threatening or violent behaviour against another person or any child of the family, in addition to applications for Occupation Orders. Often applicants seeking a protection order in the family courts will be in the home (unless rehoused) while an application is being made. On the 19 March 2020 HHJ Andrew McFarlane, the President of the Family Division and Head of the Family Division, issued guidance as to family hearings. Acknowledging the difficulties ahead, the main guidance states that the default position is that hearings should be heard remotely, via email, telephone, video or Skype, unless in the requirements of fairness and justice a court-based hearing is required and is safe to schedule. Provision must be made for remote hearings to be recorded. The determination of whether or not a hearing should be remote should be determined on a case-specific basis.[13]

The criminal courts are having to adapt their method of operations too. Suffice to say, crown court cases involving jury trials although initially stopped have now resumed on a pilot-only basis in London, Bristol, Cardiff and Manchester and in the magistrates court priority is given to defendant in-custody cases. Understandably this has generated a notable backlog of cases as in normal circumstance approximately 1,000 jury trials are held in England and Wales each month.[14] In other cases, sentencing and bail application hearings are being held over the Cloud Video Platform, Skype and telephone.[15]

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, said: ‘It's taken a lot of time, a lot of energy and a great deal of effort on the part of many people to come up with plans that Public Health England and Public Health Wales have been entirely satisfied are safe.’[16] Lord Burnett went to say: ‘Looking forward to the administration of justice generally, there is absolutely nothing that is off the table.’ The additional measures under consideration include using alternative non-court buildings but also notably operating jury panels with seven jurors instead of 12; a substantial departure from current practice and late night sittings colloquially referred to as ‘Nightingale Courts’.[17] Late night court sittings are not new to the English and Welsh jurisdiction and were last implemented following the August 2011 riots when such arrangements were put in place to deliver ‘swift justice’.[18]

Recognising the worldwide ‘explosion’ of more violence in a domestic setting, the World Health Organization (WHO) has also issued guidance to support victims during the Covid-19 pandemic.[19] The Social Care Institute for Excellence has also issued specific guidance on safeguarding.[20]

The authors are of the view that a collaborative, sustainable and non-partisan political approach to preventing and tackling this offending is required, which starts, we assert, with early education on healthy relationships, gender equality, mutual respect and acceptable behaviours.

We contend that a properly costed, funded, non-partisan and resilient domestic abuse national action plan is required to prevent and tackle this and other forms of gender based violence/abuse to the longer term.

The Covid-19 pandemic is not to blame for the existing disease of domestic abuse in our communities and in our countries.



[1]UK Parliament, ‘Domestic Abuse Bill 2019-21’, available at: https://services.parliament.uk/bills/2019-21/domesticabuse.html, last accessed 7 June 2020.

[2]National Police Chief’s Council’s press release, 21 May 2020, available at: https://news.npcc.police.uk/releases/sustained-falls-in-recorded-crime-reported-throughout-lockdown, last accessed 7 June 2020.

[3]Office for National Statistics (ONS), Domestic abuse prevalence and trends, England and Wales: year ending March 2019 (November 2019), available at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/articles/domesticabuseprevalenceandtrendsenglandandwales/yearendingmarch2019#understanding-domestic-abuse, last accessed 7 June 2020.


[5]World Health Organization, Department of Reproductive Health and Research, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, South African Medical Research Council (2013) Global and regional estimates of violence against women: prevalence and health effects of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence, p2, available at: http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/publications/violence/9789241564625/en/. For individual country information, see UN Women Global Database on Violence against Women, at: http://evaw-global-database.unwomen.org/en/countries.

[6]National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC), available at: https://www.npcc.police.uk/Home, last accessed 7 June 2020.

[7]National Police Chief’s Council’s press release, 21 May 20, available at: https://news.npcc.police.uk/releases/sustained-falls-in-recorded-crime-reported-throughout-lockdown, last accessed 7 June 2020.

[8]Jamie Grierson, ‘Domestic abuse killings 'more than double' amid Covid-19 lockdown’, the Guardian, 15 April 2020, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/apr/15/domestic-abuse-killings-more-than-double-amid-covid-19-lockdown, last accessed 7 June 2020.

[9]R Fotinatos-Ventouratos and C Cooper, The economic crisis and occupational stress, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2015.


[11]Rhys Oliver, Barnaby Alexander, Stephen Roe and Miriam Wlasny, ‘The economic and social cost of domestic abuse’, UK Home Office Research Report 107, January 2019, available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/772180/horr107.pdf, last accessed 7 June 2020.

[12]UK Government, Guidance Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, 26 March 2020, available at: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/claim-for-wage-costs-through-the-coronavirus-job-retention-scheme, last accessed 7 June 2020.

[13]Mr Justice MacDonald, ‘The Remote Access Family Court’, UK Courts and Tribunals Judiciary, Version 4, 16 April 2020, available at: https://www.judiciary.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/The-Remote-Access-Family-Court-Version-4-Final-16.04.20.pdf, last accessed 7 June 2020.

[14] Mark White, ‘Coronavirus: “Nightingale courts” considered as jury trials return’, Sky News, 17 May 2020, available at: https://news.sky.com/story/coronavirus-nightingale-courts-considered-as-jury-trials-return-11989887, last accessed 7 June 2020.

[15]HMCTS, HMCTS daily operational summary on courts and tribunals during coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak accessed via https://www.gov.uk/guidance/hmcts-daily-operational-summary-on-courts-and-tribunals-during-coronavirus-covid-19-outbreak#hmcts-operational-summary-24-april-2020

[16]See n14.


[18]Tim Adams, ‘England riots: justice grinds on as courts sit through the night’, the Observer, 14 August 2011, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2011/aug/14/riots-courts-justice-metropolitan-police, last accessed 7 June 2020.

[19]World Health Organization, ‘Q&A: Violence against women during COVID-19’, 15 April 2020, available at: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/question-and-answers-hub/q-a-detail/violence-against-women-during-covid-19?gclid=CjwKCAjw2a, last accessed 7 June 2020.

[20]Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE), ‘Domestic violence and abuse: Safeguarding during the COVID-19 crisis’, 22 May 2020, available at: https://www.scie.org.uk/care-providers/coronavirus-covid-19/safeguarding/domestic-violence-abuse, last accessed 7 June 2020.


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