This article has been written by Peter Markham who works for the Immigration Advice Service; an organisation of Manchester immigration lawyers.
Many have been waiting with bated breath for the Domestic Abuse (DA) Bill to reach the statute books with its grand promises. There’ll be fresh court reforms and safeguarding measures aplenty, however, it appears the forthcoming legislation doesn’t cater to everyone who needs protection.
At the forefront of such concerns is disabled people who, despite the high risk of domestic violence, don’t appear to be covered by the proposed Bill.
Many disabled people have been facing added levels of adversity during the global pandemic, facing higher threats of redundancy as well as increased health risks due to the Coronavirus. Yet there is an even darker side to the consequences of COVID-19: whenever lockdowns are rolled out, research points to prove domestic abuse rises. For disabled people who may rely on one person for their care needs, such periods of prolonged isolation creates the ideal setting for an abuser to strike.
However, the sad truth is that domestic abuse against some of the most vulnerable had already been rising before the pandemic. One survey carried out in 2018 found that abuse was taking place in 99 percent of care homes across England and, although neglect was quoted as the most common form of abuse, there were also instances of verbal and physical abuse. Further figures illuminated the worrying trend last year when the NHS unveiled over 400,000 disabled abuse cases.
Peter Kyle, Labour’s Shadow Justice Minister, flagged up these disturbing statistics in parliament in June while acknowledging that the figures are “highly likely” to be an “underestimate.” This is because, according to SafeLives, disabled victims of abuse are more likely to experience abuse for far longer – on average 3.3 years compared to the 2.3 years average in non-disabled abuse cases. Kyle further illuminated that disabled women are up to “three times more likely” to experience domestic abuse, whether from a family member such as a spouse, parent, sibling or child, or from a carer.
And it is here where the DA Bill falls at the first hurdle. The Bill only identifies immediate family members as being capable of domestic violence, yet this doesn’t correlate to the lived realities of many disabled abuse victims who face abuse from unrelated people such as unpaid volunteers, friends and/or neighbours, or more distant family members.
Disabled people experience additional facets of abuse too, often being manipulated, coerced and mistreated in ways which relate to their impairment. An abusive carer may limit the victims’ access to medication and mobility aids, severely restrict contact with others or ‘play on’ their mental health with threats and/or acts that humiliate and make the victim feel degraded, such as withholding food, care and general assistance needed in their day-to-day life. The victim may also have their benefits stolen and their finances controlled.
However, the DA Bill essentially endorses this behaviour and tilts in favour of the abuser over the victim. The so-called “carer’s defence” that sits within the DA Bill itself provides a ‘get out’ clause for abusers who can claim acts of harm were in the victim’s ‘best interests’.
Research carried out by Dewis Choice into the care of old people who struggle with dementia made the observation that abuse against this demographic is often “overlooked or seen as a one-off incident, rather than a pattern of coercive behaviour” and that there “is also a tendency to treat the abuse as unintentional harm or neglect, thanks to a general assumption that families and partners always act with compassion.” In light of this research, it’s clear to see how the carer’s defence clause is flawed: elderly and disabled victims of abuse will not be taken seriously while their abusers can walk free from facing justice or consequences.
The government itself was even able to give examples of how such a defence could be used as the Bill passed through its various stages. These included administering medication by force or even imprisoning someone. All this, Disability Rights UK say, could really amount to ‘coercive control.’ Now, campaigners are calling for the ‘carer’s defence’ to be removed so that those who carry out abuse are prosecuted accordingly.
Such errors in the DA Bill could easily be amended to protect disabled people. Yet doing so would be the bare minimum expectation as there remains other areas in which disabled abuse victims fall through the cracks. For instance, the DA Bill could provide more funding to address the accessibility issue of most UK refuges and shelters where less than 2% remain wheelchair friendly and put an end to the fraught welfare system that sees Universal Credit administered per household, rather than per individual, and thus grants abusive partners the opportunity to hoard their victims’ benefits.
The Bill could also extend to shield migrant disabled victims who, on the account of their insecure immigration status, not only have No Recourse to Public Funds whatsoever but are routinely turned away from refuges and may only apply for emergency funding if they reside in the UK under a Partner Visa.
It is evident that disabled victims are at an increased risk of domestic abuse, yet are less likely to be taken seriously, have fewer options to seek support and far fewer means to escape abuse, particularly if they happen to be without British citizenship.
If the DA Bill is to have the maximum desired effect, it needs to offer specific protection for disabled people and remove the many counterproductive loopholes that appear to work against them.
Until then, disabled people will continue to fall through the cracks of this ‘landmark’ legislation and the UK will remain blighted by its hesitancy to eradicate domestic violence once and for all.