Around the world, the media and civil society groups have been vocal in bringing to light the significant increase in cases of domestic abuse being reported since lockdown measures came into place this spring. In the UK, the charity Refuge reported a 49% surge in calls to its national domestic abuse helpline during the first week of April . This telling figure begins to expose the additional challenges and risks faced by victims of domestic abuse when asked to stay at home, living with an abusive family member and isolated from existing support networks.
At the Centre for Justice Innovation, we started asking how authorities in different jurisdictions are responding in a system that, due to the pandemic, is operating far from ‘business as usual’. Our new briefing ‘Justice responses to domestic abuse during Coronavirus’ seeks to answer this question, and draws on common themes and potential lessons to be learnt from other countries around the world, which came out of research conducted for our Coronavirus and justice tracker.
A welcome trend observed in each jurisdiction is the consistent categorisation of domestic abuse cases as a priority throughout the crisis. Despite many of the court systems reducing caseloads to only essential hearings, domestic abuse cases have been ring-fenced, with many court hearings dealing with such cases using phone and audio hearing technology. Domestic abuse has also been prioritised by emergency funding packages, with many countries announcing a dedicated investment in frontline services.
Widespread disruption to the support available to victims and witnesses is one challenge experienced unanimously across the eight common law jurisdictions the tracker has been monitoring. As part of measures to slow the spread of the virus, much of this support has been launched in the virtual realm with only accommodation and shelters remaining open.
The shift to a virtual court system in many countries has prompted discussions on the viability of using audio and video remote court hearings even after the courts are able to return to normal. Responses to the Rapid consultation on the use of remote hearings, conducted by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, reveal a number of these concerns regarding victim participation in virtual hearings. Respondents highlighted the lack of protocols and the management of remote hearings, giving examples of victims becoming distressed by hearings taking place in their home, and victims waiting on the phone for the hearing to begin with only the perpetrator on the line with them. Positives were identified as well, with some victims noting how remote hearings facilitated a quick and straightforward process of obtaining a non-molestation order, and others deeming it to be a less stressful experience than attending court in person.
There is much that the UK can take inspiration from, and reflect on how its own approach ensures victims and perpetrators receive the right support in these unprecedented times and beyond. This is a particularly salient issue to address, not only due to the Coronavirus pandemic, but also because of the forthcoming Domestic Abuse Bill, which will thrust the topic of domestic abuse back into public discourse, and presents a crucial opportunity to address these concerns.
Read the full briefing here.