Written Evidence submitted by Northumbria Law School (COR0049)
This submission is made on behalf of the following academics from Northumbria Law School, Northumbria University: Kayliegh Richardson, Ana Speed and Callum Thomson.
1. This submission draws upon a research study conducted in April 2020 on the impact of covid-19 on the operation of domestic abuse and gender-based violence support services in the UK. As part of that research study, an online survey was circulated to 278 organisations who support victims of domestic abuse or gender-based violence. The survey opened on 2 April 2020 and currently remains open. At the date of writing this evidence (14 April 2020), we had received responses from 46 organisations. Those responses inform this submission. At the date of submission (20 April 2020), a further 4 responses had been received which do not inform this submission.
2. We asked organisations to specify which geographical region or regions of the UK they operate within and we can confirm that we have received a response from organisations across every area of the UK. The following table shows the geographical areas in which the responding organisations operate:
Of the responding organisations, 98% support female victims of gender-based violence, 57% support male victims of abuse and 48% support people who identify as non-binary.
3. The responding organisations support victims who experience diverse forms of gender-based violence including (but not limited to) domestic abuse, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, honour-based violence and abuse, sexual abuse, human trafficking and stalking.
Prevalence of domestic abuse
4. We asked all organisations whether they had noticed a change in calls/online contacts since social distancing measures were implemented. 80% of responding organisations indicated that they had noticed a change. However, we received mixed responses as to whether that change was an increase or decrease in calls/reports.
5. 11 responding organisations (24%) reported an increase in calls and/or referrals. Quoted increases ranged from 25% to 120%. It is noted that this is broadly in line with statistics which have been cited in the mainstream media.
6. 21 responding organisations (46%) reported a decrease in calls and/or referrals. Many of the organisations who reported decreases raised concerns that this may be because victims are isolating with their perpetrators, leaving them with no opportunity to seek help or support. This may indicate that a different approach needs to be taken in advising victims of how they can seek support and protection beyond providing helpline contact numbers.
7. The remaining organisations did not specify whether they had noticed an increase or a decrease.
Summary of recommendations
8. For ease of reference, a summary of our recommendations will be provided first, with the findings of the survey and additional detail being provided in the table below.
9. It is important to note that there may be an increase in referrals to support services once social distancing measures are lifted and victims have more opportunity to seek support. It is therefore imperative that any additional support or funding remains in place beyond the lifting of those measures.
10. It is a step in the right direction that the government have announced £750 million funding for frontline charities and a further £2 million specifically for domestic abuse services. However, it is important that services can access this funding immediately without the need for complex applications that will take them away from their frontline work. This will be particularly important for smaller domestic abuse services who do not have the staff to devote to these types of applications. It is imperative that this funding is available nationwide to all support services, no matter what their size, to prevent a postcode lottery. It is also imperative that a proportion of these funds are specifically earmarked for organisations supporting victims of gender-based violence in light of the significant impact the pandemic has had on the demand for such services.
11. Current refuge provision is insufficient and the government therefore needs to consider the additional provision of emergency accommodation for victims of domestic abuse who leave isolation to seek protection. We would suggest using empty hotels or apartments would be a good temporary solution as this will support the UK’s hospitality industry whilst providing appropriate accommodation which will not place further people at risk through the use of shared refuged spaces. However, as addressed above, it is likely that demand will increase when social distancing measures are lifted. This may coincide with the reopening of hotels and therefore a longer-term resolution to the refuge shortfall needs to be considered, in consultation with existing refuge providers.
12. To ensure that victims are aware of their options, there is also a need for better information sharing (both with professionals and the public). We recommend that a national media campaign (using TV and radio, as well as websites) and information posters in supermarkets/pharmacies should be used to set out different options for victims of domestic abuse and other types of gender-based violence. As well as setting out various ways to approach support services, this campaign should make clear that the police will still attend domestic abuse incidents, refuges are still open (subject to the recommendations above) and the courts are still accepting urgent applications for protective injunctions.
13. The table below outlines the key findings from the survey, together with our recommendations as to additional support that could be offered to address each of those findings.
80.9% of the organisations who responded to our survey have had to withdraw or delay some of their available services because of the covid-19 outbreak and associated social distancing measures.
The main examples provided involved the removal of face to face appointments and group sessions. However, fundraising and educational activities have also been delayed and therapeutic work for adults and children has been cancelled.
Technological support and funding is required to move as many of these services online as possible.
This support should extend beyond the support services to the service users themselves (many of whom may not have access to the technology needed to access meetings remotely).
28.6% of the services which offer refuge accommodation have been forced to close their doors to new entrants.
This was either because the refuges are already full or to protect current refuge residents from the risk of infection brought by the introduction of new families (many of the refuges share communal areas).
Consider funding alternative accommodation such as hotels, Airbnb or private rented apartments. This would have an added benefit of supporting the UK’s hospitality industry. It is understood that many hotels have agreed in principle to this if the cost is underwritten by the Government. It is noted that this is in line with the approach being taken in France where 20,000 hotel rooms have been made available to support victims.
As a result of many refuges sharing communal areas, it is necessary that adequate testing for covid-19 is available to those living in refuge accommodation to ensure they are not disproportionately impacted by the virus and that anyone who is vulnerable is not placed at added risk. Increasing testing for refuge users may also increase the number of refuge spaces that are available rather than refuges having to take a cautious approach and closing their doors to new entrants.
Local authorities must also be advised that those fleeing violence must be considered priority need for local authority housing.
There needs to be an appreciation of the potential need for longer term accommodation (i.e. once social distancing measures have been eased) when there will continue to be a need for accommodation but there may not be refuge space due to the rise in cases of intimate partner violence and rooms in hotels may be no longer available. It is possible that a purpose-built domestic abuse Nightingale refuge would be appropriate, depending on the numbers of victims requiring accommodation, where those accepted must first be tested. This would likely decrease the prevalence of domestic abuse as well as the death toll. This should only be used as an interim solution pending more permanent local authority or private accommodation being identified.
Services have had to increase their phone and/or social media support to compensate for the reduction in face to face support.
Funding is required for any additional necessary technology. It is acknowledged that there is a proposed £2M fund to assist with technology for domestic abuse charities, with access to a further £750M fund for charities more generally. This funding needs to be allocated forthwith to all domestic abuse charities, rather than just the larger, well known charities.
As there is a concern from charities about their volunteers becoming disengaged, an increase in technology funding will allow links with volunteers to be maintained. A Covid-19 accreditation for volunteers through an online learning / webinar programme would also assist with retaining engagement and subsequently addressing a potential greater demand on the services.
As services are currently unable to run support groups due to social distancing, there needs to be greater emphasis / training on how support groups can meet online without putting the victim in danger of their abuser and, more generally, for organisations to develop their online service offering. This may be achieved by decoy websites, for example, which allow victims to contact an organisation/their support worker, provide updates about their situation or participate in online support services without it appearing on a search history as a domestic abuse organisation. It is noted that decoy email addresses and decoy courts are already occasionally utilised in domestic abuse cases in the family courts.
Organisations should, at the very least, be advised to develop an “exit site” button which, when pressed, immediately returns the user to a generic search page (such as google) and automatically deletes the website from the user’s browser history.
57.4% of responding organisations reported offering additional services as a direct result of the covid-19 outbreak.
Examples included assisting service users to obtain food and prescriptions, increasing telephone services to include wellbeing and counselling appointments, introducing live chat facilities and providing online training to individuals and organisations who may come into contact with victims (including supermarket workers and pharmacists).
Several organisations specifically mentioned the support and donations they have received from Morrisons. Organisations should be provided with support to establish relationships with other supermarkets/food banks.
Organisations should also receive funding and support to expand their online training further and make it more widely available to those people who may be the only contact with the outside world that a victim has (i.e. supermarket and pharmacy staff). It is inherently problematic to expect supermarket workers to identify victims of abuse, as some have suggested, given that not all abuse leaves a physical mark. However, training could provide shop workers with knowledge about the action they should take in the event that someone reports violence to them. Staff members who have undergone training could wear a name badge/sticker identifying that they are a safe person to report abuse to.
It is recommended that support services should be encouraged to (and assisted with) setting up pop-up booths in supermarkets and/or pharmacies where domestic abuse victims can sit 1:1 with a trained charity worker. The charity worker could be available remotely using a computer to promote social distancing and to alleviate the pressure on supermarket staff who are already under pressure. This recommendation is cost-effective and assisted by only one member of the family being able to enter the store during lockdown. It is noted that in Argentina, pharmacies have been designated as safe spaces for domestic abuse to be reported, whilst in France, grocery stores are housing pop-up services. This recommendation is therefore in line with the approach being adopted in other jurisdictions.
It is noted that in some jurisdictions, code words have been devised for victims to report violence to shop staff members. For example, there are reports that in French pharmacies, asking for “mask 19” will alert the shop worker that the shopper wishes to report abuse. It is not recommended that this approach is adopted in the UK. There are difficulties with shop workers being expected to remember code words, especially if they have not received any training. In addition, it increases the possibility of unofficial viral campaigns which deliberately or inadvertently start new code-words. Therefore, pop-up booths with trained professionals would be preferable.
When Covid-19 screening processes are available, domestic abuse victims should be encouraged to use this as an opportunity to report abuse and seek support.
Financial Support, Funding and Resources
80.9% of the organisations who responded have received no additional financial support to allow them to keep their services running.
Of the 19.1% who did receive funding, there appears to be inconsistencies across regions. For example, of the nine organisations who report receiving additional funding, a third of those are based in Scotland and report that this funding was directly provided by the Scottish Government.
In addition, all but two of the nine organisations who received additional funding are regional divisions of larger national organisations. This therefore indicates that some of the larger charities are receiving funding, whereas the smaller organisations are not. This may be because larger organisations often have staff who are devoted solely to the task of seeking out relevant funding, whereas smaller organisations do not have this privilege. Alternatively, it could be because of the media attention that is drawn to larger national organisations, thereby attracting more funding.
Many of the services reported making applications for small pots of funding but several of the smaller organisations reported that the amounts being offered were not enough or that they do not have the time to make those applications whilst providing support to victims.
This is potentially leading to a postcode lottery and funding needs to be more widely available across all regions.
Funding needs to be more accessible for smaller organisations. Reduce the paperwork involved in applying for pots of funding and consider automatic entitlement to funding to cover temporary running costs. The government must recognise that charities have already faced a considerable period of financial cuts as a result of austerity measures.
There also needs to be transparency in relation to the government’s decision as to which charities will benefit from the £750M and £2M of additional funding. There is currently no guidance in this respect. It is recommended that a database/register of domestic abuse charities be kept to enable easy access for the government to act on these occasions. The database/register could be akin to the Companies House and Charity Commission websites. It could also act as a public access site for victims to have an easily accessible and full directory of services area by area.
The authors support the recommendation of the VAWG sector statement on Covid-19 which advocates repurposing the final £15 million Tampon Tax round as unrestricted grant funding to specialist gender-based violence services to ensure they can cope and adapt. However, it is suggested that this should not be limited to specialist women’s organisations (as proposed in the VAWG sector statement) but should be extended to all organisations supporting victims of gender-based violence, whether male or female.
In light of the reduced income for domestic abuse charities, the government needs to work with online training providers to inform the charities of how to utilise their online presence to increase their donation income. One participant noted that they would lose £150,000 as the London Marathon has been postponed. This could be resolved through online fundraising events. This recommendation would also allow government funds to be preserved. This could form part of the Home Secretary’s domestic abuse campaign. It is important to use the campaign to further a useful message, rather than focusing on promoting a temporary hashtag and reinforcing the need to contact the Domestic Abuse Helpline.
To further support the Home Secretary’s campaign, there should be a focus on uploading useful material online by the services, from help sheets, to VLogs. There should also be material for children in need uploaded to their school websites and portals and well as being disseminated by the schools through their teaching materials. This could provide an opportunity for older children to report any abuse taking place at home.
It is imperative that funding is available following lockdown when use of domestic abuse services could well peak, as is often the case following the Christmas period. It is insufficient for funding to be strictly limited to the emergency lockdown period.
17% of organisations that responded anticipate losing funding because of covid-19.
One of the main reported causes for this is loss of income from refuge spaces that they can no longer offer. These organisations previously would have received housing benefit for every refuge space they fill but now have empty spaces because they have closed their doors to new entrants. They also report losing out on fundraising money, for example from sporting events that have now been cancelled.
Compensation for any funding lost as a direct or indirect result of covid-19. Specifically, it is recommended that the government make up the shortfall in housing benefit for refuges given that they cannot take in new residents for reasons of social distancing.
It is recommended that a 6 – 12 month breathing space be offered to services following lockdown. This breathing space could constitute a mortgage holiday on their working premises, as well as the current proposed 12-month business rates relief 100% exemption, rather than the usual maximum of 80%.
A lack of PPE is a concern for those services who continue to interact face to face with their service users (such as those operating refuge services).
Support services should be provided with PPE in the same way as it is provided to care workers. Whilst acknowledging that there is a national shortage in PPE, where possible it should be provided promptly and free of charge, reflecting that support workers are putting their health at risk in providing these critical services. Support services should also be provided with guidance about effectively using and disposing of PPE, acknowledging that they are not medical professionals.
Some support services have had to purchase additional IT equipment and mobile phones to allow their volunteers/staff to work from home.
Funding to cover the costs of that additional equipment without a complex application process (see the recommendations above).
It is reported that services are expending time and resources on the drafting of policies for staff to work from home, as well as navigating GPDR issues. It is recommended that the government publish comprehensive and accessible guidance and templates to support services in their policy drafting.
As aforesaid, some organisations have received useful assistance from companies, such as Morrisons. In order to garner financial support from large businesses, their businesses could be promoted in the Home Secretary’s Domestic Abuse campaign.
One of the organisations who responded more recently, indicated that there had been an increase in people accessing their live chat service. Several of the organisations indicated that they are looking to launch similar chat services but indicated that they would need help with funding to launch those services.
Support and funding to establish live chat facilities for all organisations who wish to deliver such services, not just the larger national organisations.
Please also see recommendations in relation to staffing and volunteers.
44.7% of organisations who responded believe the outbreak is likely to have an impact on their ability to retain staff or volunteers.
In light of the fact that many support services are facing increased demand for their services or other increased demands on their time (and that some organisations have reported losing volunteers or fearing losing volunteers), it is suggested that some of the surplus volunteers who registered for the NHS volunteer scheme could be given the opportunity to instead provide services for domestic abuse charities in their local area. This is subject to the caveat that they would require some training (which could be provided online). Their role could include (a) carrying out administrative tasks for the organisation and (b) manning telephone and/or online chat services.
Access to Justice/Legal Issues/Public messaging
There is confusion amongst some support services and victims about whether the courts are still in operation.
Support services who are aware that the courts are continuing to operate, are providing support with the changes to procedure and virtualisation of the court process.
Domestic abuse is a sensitive issue that should be at the forefront of the nation’s mind. It is important to note in the Daily National Briefing that some services are reporting a decrease in referrals in consequence of victims being locked in with their perpetrator. If the message is solely that there is an increase in calls to services, the public may well disengage with the important message, in the thought that victims are seeking help. Furthermore, victims may not feel able to contact a stretched service if the message is solely that the services are inundated with enquiries.
Clear guidance for the public on the current position, including what applications are still being heard and how they are being heard. The position of the Court should be outlined within the Daily National Briefing.
Current guidance is directed at professionals and a more succinct document for litigants in person and support services who often support litigants in person needs to be produced (including guidance on how they can access the relevant technology for remote hearings). This guidance needs to be easily located by the public. This could also be directly stated within the Daily National Briefing. It is taking significant time, patience and the dedication of lawyers and Court staff to use virtual software for hearings, so there needs to be easy-to-read and accessible guides for litigants in person. It would be beneficial for there to be video clips of explanations for the public. A greater informed public will create a more efficient justice system. The authors of this written evidence could assist with the production of guidance documents for litigants in person.
As charities are finding it difficult to learn about the changes to the Court, they will find the aforementioned guides and video clips useful. This will also clarify any misconceptions that the courts are not operating during this period.
Although Courts are seeking to prioritise urgent cases, including Non-Molestation and Occupation Order applications, it is recommended that, to ease the pressure on the Court, there should be an automatic extension of Non-Molestation Orders/Occupations Order/Undertakings in Non-Molestation proceedings until the next listed hearing, or for a period of six months, whichever is sooner. The period of six months being referenced as a reasonably judged period of the pandemic emergency in this jurisdiction.
There are already funding issues within the Ministry of Justice (and an administrative backlog caused by a reduction in Court staffing and the Court estate) and it is recommended that the service receive a funding injection to manage the caseload at this time and shortly after, to fund more judges and Court administrators to preside over hearings and address the mounting Court administration workload. If there is no financial injection, the Justice system may reaching its breaking point. The Government must recognise that the justice system has already experienced considerable funding cuts as a result of austerity measures and the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 which has impacted its ability to operate effectively prior to the pandemic.
There is urgent need for clarification as part of the Home Secretary’s campaign, that:
(a) the police will attend the home of victims following an incident of domestic abuse, notwithstanding social distancing measures;
(b) victims are able to leave their home to access domestic abuse support services (as this should fall within Regulation 6 of the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 on the basis that they are accessing a critical public service/escaping harm and they would have a reasonable excuse;
(c) victims and/or perpetrators can leave their home for a few days following an argument to ‘cool down’; and
(d) victims can seek refuge and/or other suitable alternative accommodation if they need to leave their home in an emergency and are not prevented from doing so as a result of the Regulations.
This will also demonstrate to perpetrators that violence perpetrated during the lockdown will not go unnoticed and unpunished. More generally, a campaign of this nature draws attention to the scale and impact of domestic abuse. It is suggested this public messaging could best be achieved as part of the Daily National Briefing and repeated as part of a televised campaign. It is noted that there is already a televised campaign advertising the “stay home” message therefore this suggestion is in line with existing public messaging.
Service users have reported concerns about child contact progressing during the outbreak or the ability of the perpetrator to not return the children at the end of contact.
Written guidance on child contact needs to be produced that is suitable for the general public (not lawyers). Clarification that existing child arrangements orders should be complied with as far as possible and provided this can be achieved in a safe way (for children and parents). As above, the authors of this written evidence could assist with the production of guidance documents.
The President of the Family Court, as well as other members of the judiciary in other areas of the law, are producing helpful guidance, but this must be made accessible and distributed to the public. The guidance is clear in relation to Child Arrangements Order matters; informing the public as such, could ease pressure on all family justice services as the expectations of the public are managed.
Although there needs to be refuge accommodation made available for victims of domestic abuse, there must be consideration of accommodation being made available for perpetrators of domestic abuse who need to leave the family home.