Our Domestic Abuse Laws Have Changed - But It's Too Late For This Woman

Photo: Eylul Aslan.
The government have unveiled its long-awaited domestic abuse bill containing various measures that will offer greater protections to victims and their families.
Among the measures is legislation banning people accused of abuse from cross-examining victims in court – a practice that has long been condemned by campaigners – and the creation of a new legal definition of domestic abuse that includes economic abuse and control.
The bill, which was drafted on the basis of a consultation with "victims, support organisations and frontline professionals", has been largely welcomed by prominent charities and campaigners. But many others argue it doesn't go far enough and will need to be met with sufficient funding if it's to be properly implemented.
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Alongside the bill, the government released research estimating that domestic abuse cost our society £66bn in 2016/17, a figure that it hopes will drop with the introduction of the new bill. Sandra Horley CBE, chief executive of the national domestic abuse charity Refuge, called it a "once in a generation opportunity" to tackle domestic violence, but added that "adequate resource" was needed from government to match its aspirations.
Women's Aid chief executive Katie Ghose said the financial and human cost should be a "wake-up call for us all".

What the bill means

The full draft bill can be found on the government's website, but here are some of the highlights:
• Abusers will no longer cross-examine victims in family courts, where judges decide how much contact parents have with their children after a divorce.
• The first legal definition of domestic abuse, which will go beyond physical violence to include psychological coercion and manipulation, and financial abuse and control.
• The introduction of a national "domestic abuse commissioner" dedicated to combating the problem.
• The creation of new powers to compel perpetrators to attend behaviour change programmes or rehabilitation programmes where substance abuse is a factor.
• Domestic abusers could face mandatory lie-detector tests when released from prison, as the Guardian reported.
• It will clarify how Clare's Law works – a mechanism that enables members of the public to find out about a partner's violent past.

Why it's needed

Claire Throssell, a domestic abuse survivor from Sheffield, was cross-examined by her husband, Darren Sykes, at two separate hearings. Speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning, Throssell, who is now a campaigner, revealed that Sykes was granted unsupervised contact with their sons, despite a history of aggressive behaviour towards his family. Sykes went on to murder both children, aged nine and 12, and take his own life. He lured the young boys up to his attic with the promise of a new train set, before setting the attic alight, killing both boys.
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It was four years into their marriage when Darren became emotionally and physically abusive, Throssell told Today. A turning point came when Sykes attempted to punch one of their sons – she intervened to shield her young son and fell down the stairs. The couple eventually separated and had their first family court hearing in 2014. Throssell was cross-examined by Sykes in court, despite him having a solicitor present to represent him.
"All the evidence was there but he was still trying to control, so you feel like you're still that piece of dirt underneath his shoe. How dare I take him to court? How dare I keep the children away from him?" The impact of this, Throssell believes, was that she "came across very poorly" to the judge. "When you've been told for long enough that you can't do something, whenever you see the person that's instilled that in you... you instantly curl up again inside and you instantly feel worthless again."
Darren was granted five hours a week with the children, who Throssell says didn't want to see him ever again and cried when the verdict was revealed. During the second family court hearing, Throssell sat "four seats away" from Darren, who was given a warning for his "aggressive and controlling" behaviour towards his barrister.

What charities and campaigners say

Many charities and campaigners in the field are pleased with some of the changes outlined in the bill, but some believe it doesn't go far enough. Refuge said it was "pleased to see that [the bill] reflects many of the concerns of survivors of abuse and those working with them" but added that government would need to match its commitment with funding.
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"This Bill represents a once in a generation opportunity to address domestic violence; but in order to do so, we must ensure its aspirations are matched by adequate resource," said Sandra Horley CBE, Refuge's chief executive. "The cost to women and children’s lives is devastating. But now the immense cost to the taxpayer has been laid bare, too," she said.
Women's Aid's chief executive, Katie Ghose said: "The domestic abuse bill has the potential to create a step-change in the national response and this must be backed up with sustainable funding for our lifesaving network of specialist support services to make a real difference to survivors' lives."
She added that more needed to be done to protect families in the family courts. "Although this new law is much welcomed, it alone will not protect survivors in the family courts and challenge the 'contact at all costs' approach by judges which is putting children in danger. We look forward to working with the government to introduce greater protections in the family courts for survivors, like special measures to safeguard them in the courtroom, and ensure that children’s safety is put at the heart of all decisions made by the family courts."
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247.
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