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COVID-19 and self-isolation: what to do when the danger is at home

Date:6 APR 2020

For many of us, home is a place of safety in times of difficulty, stress and uncertainty. But for those who experience domestic violence, home is often a place of violence, danger and fear. According to government figures, an estimated 1.6 million women and 786,000 men in England and Wales experienced domestic abuse last year, which is a staggering figure.

Whilst highly sensible and necessary advice given the on-going coronavirus crisis, the government’s latest ‘social distancing’ rules, which are rapidly moving towards mass self-isolation, are at odds with its own figures illustrating just how prevalent the risk of domestic violence is.  We know that reports of domestic violence cases surge during the summer and Christmas holiday periods, during which time abusers spend more time with their families. There is a serious risk that under self-isolation, perpetrators of abuse will be able to restrict their partner’s freedom and threaten their and their children’s safety in the same way and on the same scale. To compound the problem, this is all happening at a time when support services are struggling to function due to the same government guidelines and rules on top of an existing funding crisis.

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Many abusers use isolation as a way of controlling their partner.  Isolation keeps the suspicions of others at bay, reduces the opportunities for someone to seek help, and may also increase cases of physical violence where there is less chance of another person noticing bruises or other injuries. Further, domestic abuse does not always leave a physical mark.  Controlling and coercive behaviour is an act or pattern of acts that can include threats, intimidation or other abuse designed to make a person dependent by isolating them from support, depriving them of independence and regulating their everyday behaviour. Further information can be found in our previous blogs here and here.  

It is deeply concerning that at the very core of controlling and coercive behaviour and other forms of domestic abuse is the theme of isolation;  exactly what the government is encouraging huge swathes of people to introduce into their day to day lives in order to combat the serious threat COVID-19 poses.  Whilst self-isolation is an important weapon in the fight against coronavirus, it may shut down routes to support and safety, causing further barriers to finding time away from the perpetrator in order to seek help.

More needs to be done to protect those at risk of domestic violence

Reports from China show a huge surge in cases of domestic violence during the outbreak of COVID-19 (cases have almost doubled), particularly where women are living in locked down areas, and offer a warning of the situation vulnerable women here will soon be facing. The Twitter hashtag #AntiDomesticViolenceDuringEpidemic has been trending in China and social media can really help, not only by making women feel they are not alone in these situations but also by spreading awareness and sharing online resources, useful helplines and links.

However, this sort of awareness and support only goes so far in combatting the problem. Government action is required to ensure that those who experience or have experienced domestic abuse get the protection and support required, even when self-isolating. The existing high levels of domestic abuse cases in the UK must be acknowledged, and steps must be taken to provide effective support to those for whom the home is not a place of safety, but one of danger.

There is already a crisis in this country when it comes to the safety of vulnerable people, and the government needs to provide a substantial and strong response so that no-one is left isolated in a dangerous home.

Legal remedies and legal aid

Legal options available when seeking protection from an abuser include applying for a non-molestation order or an occupation order. To apply for either a non-molestation order or an occupation order, the relevant court form must be completed showing why such an order is required, supported by a witness statement setting out the facts of the situation.

Molestation is defined not only as physical violence, but can also encapsulate other behaviour such as intimidation, making threats and harassment. A non-molestation order is aimed at preventing this type of behaviour alongside the prevention of general communication (including phone calls and texts but also direct contact). A non-molestation order can include very specific provisions based on the situation, for example prohibiting all telephone communication where there has been a pattern of harassment via this means. Breach of a non-molestation order is now a criminal offence (our criminal team have previously blogged about this point here).

An occupation order provides for who can live in the family home (or certain parts of it) and can also extend to who can enter the surrounding area if necessary. Where someone is concerned that pre-warning the alleged abuser of their intention to apply for an occupation order will risk their or their child’s safety, it is possible to make an application for an occupation order without prior warning to the alleged abuser.

Further information relating to legal options in these circumstances can be found in our previous blogs here and here.

Whilst legal aid is only available in very limited cases, it is available for victims of domestic violence. 

Although we do not carry out legal aid work at Kingsley Napley, we can provide you with details of family lawyers who do and more information can also be found at www.gov.uk/legal-aid.  You can also check the Resolution website for lawyers offering legal aid in your area. You are not obliged to use a legal aid lawyer, but the provision for domestic violence victims is vital as some individuals are simply unable to afford to privately fund their cases.

Where to get help

If you are, or someone you know is, at immediate risk, you should call 999 and the police will assist.

There are a number of helplines and organisations that may be able to help you.  For example:

  • Women’s Aid | 0808 200 0247 (24 hours) and Live Chat
  • Man Kind Initiative | 01823 334244 (weekdays 10am to 4pm)
  • Refuge | 0808 200 0247 (24 hours)
  • National Domestic Violence helpline | 0808 200 0247 (24 hours)
  • National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline | 0800 999 5428
  • The National Centre of Domestic Violence | 0800 970 2070 – The NCDV provides a free emergency injunction service to survivors of domestic violence regardless of their financial circumstances, race, gender or sexual orientation
  • Respect helpline (for anyone worried about their own behaviour): | 0808 802 0321

How to help

  • Educate yourself on how to recognise abuse (in yourself and others)
  • Learn how to help someone who is experiencing domestic abuse
  • Consider donating (goods or money) to support services, for example your local Women’s Aid service or Refuge shelter or becoming a member of support charities
  • Work to raise awareness of the issues, via social media or otherwise
  • If you are worried about a friend or family member - check in with them with a telephone call, text message or video call where possible.   They may not be ready to talk, but it could make a difference for them to know that there is someone ready to listen and to help.

This article first appeared on the Kingsley Napley website and is reproduced with permission.