Domestic abuse and the COVID-19 lockdown

Article by Emma Weaver

The world is currently in the midst of a pandemic and many countries have taken steps to try and reduce the spread of COVID-19. The UK has similarly followed suit when the Prime Minister announced a minimum 3-week lockdown commencing 23rd March 2020. Those who are deemed to be in the vulnerable category should have already been self-isolating and are expected to self-isolate for 12 weeks. Effectively, those who are not key workers or can work from home are expected to remain in their homes for the duration of the lockdown. There are some exceptions to this such as one form of exercise per day.

How does this affect those who are victims of domestic abuse?

Prior to the UK being placed in lockdown many other countries had already taken this step and there are worldwide reports that the number of domestic abuse incidents have increased. For example, it is reported that this had increased threefold in one county in China. Unfortunately, the UK is no exception to these statistics with a number of police forces already reporting an increase in domestic abuse incidents.

Those who are the victims of domestic abuse will no doubt feel trapped in their own home. There may have been some respite for the victims if the perpetrator worked outside of the home. However, where the perpetrator now has the ability to work from home, the victim will constantly be faced with their abuser.

What can be done to protect victims of domestic abuse during the lockdown?

The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has stated that victims of domestic abuse can leave their homes to seek refuge and/or report domestic abuse; this will not be deemed a breach of the current lockdown rules. It is reported that refuges remain open in these uncertain times to provide help and shelter to victims as does The National Domestic Abuse Helpline.

Furthermore, a number of courts remain open or staffed to enable victims to make applications to the court. Where a victim’s local court centre is not open, advice should be sought from the court before making an application. Victims can therefore, continue to apply for a non-molestation order and/or an occupation order. This can be done in person (where the facilities remain available) or via email. Such applications are currently defined as urgent. Accordingly, the courts will continue to deal with them, if the particular court centre is open or staffed. This will also include the return hearing. However, it should be noted that the courts have always been wary in making an occupation order where the respondent does not have notice of the application.

In line with the President of the Family Division’s Guidance published on 19th March 2020, (The President’s Guidance can be found here) all hearings are expected to be dealt with remotely including urgent hearings. Where this is not possible, the court will endeavour to list a ‘face-to-face’ hearing. Remote hearings may cause some litigants in person difficulties in they do not have the technology required to conduct these hearings or do not know how to use said technology. Face-to-face hearings may also put those in the vulnerable category at risk, if they have to leave their home to attend a hearing.

A number of firms of solicitors also remain open as they are able to work remotely. This enables victims to seek legal advice on what they can do to protect themselves from domestic abuse. The police are of course available for the victim’s immediate protection, if necessary.

What can Halcyon Chambers do to help?

The family team have a number of years’ experience between them in domestic abuse cases and approach such cases with the sensitivity that is required whilst taking a robust approach in the court to ensure that the best outcome for the client is achieved. The members of the family team are available to take instructions from both solicitors and from the client directly (for those who undertake direct access work) during the ongoing pandemic. The pandemic should not be a bar to the delivery of justice.