Number of ‘highest-risk’ domestic abuse cases doubles during lockdown

Katherine Johnston (06 May, 2020)

Amid Coronavirus-related rise, the domestic abuse bill finally reached its second reading in parliament - with Neil Coyle securing more housing help for victims

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The number of high-risk domestic abuse cases referred to Southwark Council’s support service during the first three weeks of April is double the number seen in the same period last year.

According to data presented to Tuesday night’s virtual cabinet meeting, 100 cases have been received by the Southwark Advocacy Support Service between April 1 and 20,  compared with 46 during the same period in 2019. These are cases where the victim is considered to be at serious risk of harm,

This is despite the overall number of referrals initially dropping when the lockdown began. It has now risen to previous levels.

It is believed the decline seen at the end of March is due to many women and men being unable to get help while being trapped with their abusers round the clock.

The higher number of particularly serious cases point to an alarming escalation in violence and abuse for those already agt risk –  likely due to the added pressures of COVID-19, social isolation, and financial worries.

Councillor Evelyn Akoto, the public health and safety chief at Southwark Council, told her colleagues at the cabinet meeting that, anecdotally, she was hearing families say they planned to leave their homes to escape abuse as soon as the lockdown was lifted.  The council is now  funding an extra domestic violence support worker for a six-month period to help manage these and similar cases.

As the News reported last week, across the country domestic abuse has soared since the lockdown came into force at the end of March. The Met recorded a nine per cent rise in cases in the first few weeks of the lockdown, figures which Southwark borough commander Chief Superintendent Colin Wingrove said were in line with cases seen in this borough.

This week, the long-awaited Domestic Abuse Bill finally had its second reading in parliament after successive delays due to Brexit and the General Election in December.

The new legislation defines domestic abuse in law to include coercive control, financial control and emotional abuse as well as physical violence.

On Saturday, the government announced it was amending the bill, after a campaign by MP Neil Coyle, to ensure women and men fleeing domestic abuse would be prioritised for housing, and not have to pass a ‘vulnerability test’.  Coyle’s amendment had cross-party support from more than 40 MPs.

“In October the government would not accept this amendment but this shift is very welcome and will, in time, save lives,” Coyle said of his campaigning win.

“A safe home for people fleeing domestic abuse is something I have been pushing for since my first year as MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark.

“Legislation to tackle this problem has taken much longer than it should have to come before the commons but I am proud to have achieved something which is vital for the people affected.”

Another Southwark MP, Harriet Harman, has long-campaigned for the new law to include an amendment banning the “rough sex defence” in court.

There have been a string of cases where men who strangled or beat their partners to death were convicted of manslaughter or served shorter sentences due to claiming in court that the attack was a sex game gone wrong.

At the reading in parliament on April 28, Harman said not addressing this issue was a ‘glaring omission’ in the draft legislation.

“There are two lessons that I think we have learned from previous struggles to improve the law on domestic violence and sexual offences,” she told the house.

“The first is that it always takes too long. This is the bill in which this must happen.  Secondly, it is never sorted until the law is changed.

“It will not be sorted by judicial training, by Crown Prosecution Service guidance or by a taskforce, welcome though they are.

“It will not be sorted by good intentions either; they are never enough. It needs a law change.”

The bill has several further stages to pass through the House of Commons and House of Lords before being passed.

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