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Covid-19: Family courts prioritise domestic abuse

Domestic abuse is dealt with by the courts in a number of ways. Under criminal law, perpetrators can be prosecuted for violent offences such as assault and battery or sexual offences. Since 2015, controlling and coercive behaviour has also been recognised as a form of abuse.

Family law also offers protection for survivors of domestic abuse, whether physical or mental. This is sometimes preferred by survivors over going down the criminal route and the family courts continue to prioritise domestic abuse cases throughout the Covid-19 outbreak.

What protection can the family courts provide to survivors of domestic abuse?

Survivors of domestic abuse can apply to the family courts for the following emergency injunctions:

  • Non-molestation orders – can protect the applicant from the abusive behaviour of the perpetrator including harassment, coercive control, threats and violence. Breach of such an order is a criminal offence and punishable by up to five years in prison.
  • Occupation orders – regulate who can live in the family home and can be used to exclude the perpetrator from the property. A power of arrest can be attached to this type of order.

Both types of order can be applied for in conjunction with one another.

Are the family courts running in the coronavirus pandemic?

The family law courts are still running, albeit mostly on a remote basis and with more limited capacity than usual. The family court has issued guidance stating that less urgent hearings may be adjourned and has identified business priorities.

However, domestic abuse injunctions are considered ‘work that must be done’ and are therefore being given priority over other family law matters at this time.

Usually a person applying for a domestic abuse injunction must do so in person. HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has now released guidance on how to apply for a domestic abuse injunction online, as well as by post or email.

This is an important development for survivors of abuse who cannot afford a solicitor or who do not qualify for legal aid. However, as highlighted by the Law Society1, many survivors may struggle to find a safe space away from their abuser in order to apply for an emergency injunction.

The government has been called on to provide alternatives for survivors who are experiencing lockdown with their abusers. There are also concerns about the accessibility of online applications for those who are suffering technological abuse.

As refuges fill up and domestic abuse charities await the arrival of the government’s pledged funds, there will be survivors of abuse who cannot escape. This might be because they are vulnerable to coronavirus and shielding or unable to find alternative accommodation.

The National Centre for Domestic Violence2 (NCDV) has advised that in certain circumstances, as a last resort, survivors may be able to protect themselves by setting up a ‘safe zone’ in their house.

The survivors would then apply for a non-molestation order, the terms of which would forbid the perpetrator from entering this safe zone either entirely or at certain periods during the day. Breach of this order would be a criminal offence.

What are the advantages of family law injunctions?

  • Speed – Emergency injunctions can be applied and granted quickly, ensuring that those in situations of abuse are protected without delay. It can take months for a criminal trial to take place and at the time of writing, criminal jury trials have come to a halt due to the pandemic.
  • Empowering survivors – The process of applying for injunctions is in the survivor’s control, whereas criminal trials can take place without their consent. The family law process can be more empowering for survivors while protecting them.
  • Written witness statement evidence – Family injunctions are applied for by submitting a written witness statement to court detailing the abuse suffered. This can be preferable for survivors rather than giving live evidence in a jury trial.
  • Real consequences for breach – There are real and serious consequences for breaching an emergency injunction, which can be a criminal offence and punishable by imprisonment.

How can Hodge Jones & Allen help you?

Our expert family law solicitors continue to provide legal advice and services to survivors of domestic abuse. If you are in a situation of domestic abuse, we can help you apply for an injunction and navigate the family court system at this difficult and uncertain time.

If you are in immediate danger, please call the police on 999.

For more information about the government’s Covid-19 domestic abuse campaign, please read our latest blog on the topic.

Hodge Jones & Allen have expert family law solicitors who are experienced in obtaining such Orders. Our offices remain open throughout this time so that we can be contacted on 0330 822 3451 or via our contact form and we can act immediately.

We continue to support our clients during the pandemic by offering video conferencing meetings.