16 Days: The United Kingdom

By Valerie Mickiewicz, JWI Executive Associate & Library Project Coordinator

In the United Kingdom, a specific criminal offense clearly defining domestic abuse has never truly existed even though it accounts for 18% of all violent crime. A general definition that refers to “incidents of threatening behavior, violence or abuse” was adopted in 2004, but since then, the British government became concerned that the police and other agencies were not applying it broadly enough.

The new definition, which will go into effect in March 2013, expands domestic abuse to cover psychological intimidation and controlling behavior, will apply to victims under the age of 18. This means that acts such as preventing partners from leaving the house or having access to a phone could finally lead to a prosecution. The definition will include female genital mutilation, forced marriage, and make it clear that victims are not confined to one gender.

However, the new definition will not be written into law as the British Centre for Social Justice originally proposed. Instead, the reform provides a new way for authorities to respond and think about abuse.

Non-government activists, campaigners and domestic violence attorneys questioned how effective the changes would be in bringing more cases to court. Rachel Horman, head of domestic violence and forced marriage issues with the law firm Watson Ramsbottom, was skeptical of how effective the change would be. She urged the government to invest in training for police, prosecutors and judges in the devastating effects of psychological abuse; otherwise, cases will not be brought to court.

We must not assume that by changing the definition of domestic violence it will automatically increase their safety. Prosecutions for domestic abuse in Britain doubled from 2005 to 2010. However, in the last two years, 31% of funding to the domestic and sexual abuse sector has been cut leaving services under-resourced. In addition, the Home Office estimated the number of domestic violence incidents was 35% higher in 2011 than the previous year.

Whether or not this reform will increase the arrest and prosecution rates for domestic abuse in the UK remains to be seen. But with legal change just around the corner, it is important for everyone to keep their eye on this issue to ensure victims receive the necessary protection they deserve.

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