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Victims of domestic abuse: struggling for support?

This report uses new evidence from the frontline of Citizens Advice Bureaux to assess whether victims of domestic abuse can access the support they need to manage their relationships, keep themselves safe, exercise their rights to their property, children, access to justice, and rebuild their lives.

Despite welcome government commitments to the Violence Against Women and Girls agenda, increased scrutiny of the treatment of domestic abuse cases by police and the justice system, and a rise in its prominence as an issue, this report exposes the reality of many victims of abuse struggling to access the support they need.

Firstly, our research finds that more needs to be done to improve recognition and disclosure of domestic abuse. In cases of emotional or financial abuse, many victims don’t recognise the behaviours they are exposed to as even constituting abuse. Victims face emotional and practical barriers to disclosing abuse, and this can be more pronounced for individuals with specific or complicating issues. Male victims, LGBT individuals, those with English as a second language or with learning difficulties or mental health problems, can struggle to access specialist support, and can face additional barriers to disclosure.

Following disclosure, some victims face barriers to accessing legal support, as well as addressing the practicalities of leaving a relationship. Fleeing abuse is not simply an act of will. It requires the financial and practical ability to leave or take action: victims need to know ‘where can I go and what will I live on’.

Secondly, legal aid restrictions, both in terms of evidence requirements and income or asset thresholds requiring financial contribution, leave large numbers of victims giving up on their rights to justice. In some cases these restrictions expose victims to risk, leaving no alternative but to represent themselves in court facing their perpetrator.

Thirdly, refuges are not always accessible, and Local Authority responsibility to house victims fleeing abuse does not always materialise on the ground. The challenge for housing or financial security can be particularly acute where there are joint-assets that victims struggle to access or dissolve with their partner’s consent. We encounter numerous cases of clients seeking help who feel trapped without finance or accommodation, deemed ineligible for state support because of their assets, but requiring state support (through legal aid) to be able to access those assets. The picture can be particularly complicated where there has been financial abuse within the relationship.

Simply put, despite admirable positive steps over recent years, more needs to be done if the government wants to honour its commitment to support those fleeing abuse.

Early intervention or a lack of support can enable or prohibit a victim’s ability to safely leave an abusive relationship. Committed funding and resources need to be in place at the sharp end: for specialist refuges, alternative housing, policing and justice. However there needs to be more consideration given to enabling early disclosure, recognising the early warning signs and providing victims with easy access to a range of options.

With the rising profile and increasing attention given to domestic abuse, it is no longer just the domain of specialists and campaigners: politicians from across the political landscape have recognised the importance of state support for victims of abuse. Alongside this, Government and society need to ensure that the services are in place to empower victims to make the choices that are best for them and their families.

The findings presented in this report offer a series of implications for policy-makers, national and local government, campaigners as well as other referral services.