Domestic Abuse Bill Does Not Protect Those in the Hands of Perpetrators

11th January 2021 Business Crime

Calls for amendments to the Domestic Abuse Bill to make non-fatal strangulation a criminal offence led by Baroness Newlove

When the Government launched the draft Domestic Abuse Bill in January 2019 it was immediately criticised for not going far enough. As the Bill nears the final stages before receiving Royal Assent (at time of writing, it is at the Committee Stage in the House of Lords), there are urgent calls to make non-fatal strangulation a criminal offence.

The push is being led by Baroness Newlove, the former victims’ commissioner, who tweeted: “The DABill comes to the floor of @UKHouseofLords my amendments MUST be added to such bill.” Baroness Newlove is supported by Dame Vera Bird, the current victims’ commissioner and the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, Nicole Jacobs, as well as a cross-party alliance of peers and campaign groups.

It is widely accepted that strangulation is undercharged – often, as there are not any physical marks left behind police officers class it as common assault. But, strangulation or suffocation was the second most common method of killing in female homicides. According to the 2018 Femicide Census, strangulation accounted for 29% of adult female homicides, compared to just 3% of male homicides.

More than half (50-68%) of recurring domestic abuse victims experience non-fatal strangulation. Other studies have found that in intimate partner violence and sexual assaults, strangulation was involved in 20% and 23% of cases.

What is non-fatal strangulation?

Strangulation is defined as the obstruction of blood vessels and/or airway by external pressure to the neck resulting in decreased oxygen (O2) supply to the brain. Non-fatal strangulation (NFS) is when the strangulation does not cause death. Often strangulation can be difficult to detect as it does not always leave marks due to  the dynamic nature of an assault and the possibility of the repeated re-application of pressure. This form of abuse can be used by perpetrators via domestic abuse as a means of control and intimidation.  

How is non-fatal strangulation charged under existing legislation?

Currently the offence is categorised under ‘common assault or attempted murder’. Those campaigning for the new offence to become law claim that common assault minimises the seriousness of the crime. Campaigners argue that the perpetrator will be charged with common assault, which is a summary offence that can be charged by the Police when instead it should be passed to the Crown Prosecution Service. Likewise, the act does not always fall within attempted murder as the perpetrator is using it as a domestic terror tactic rather than a means to death.

Non-fatal strangulation is a powerful weapon, which appears to be undercharged or misunderstood. Campaigners argue there needs to be education surrounding the crime and a new criminal offence  is needed to give police a tool to tackle the magnitude of the threat. 

New Zealand has introduced non-fatal strangulation as a specific offence, with a maximum prison sentence of 7 years. The introduction reflects the growing concern of this type of abuse. Campaigns point to New Zealand by way of example.

Lockdown and Domestic Violence 

There is little doubt that domestic abuse increased significantly during the first lockdown in the UK, and figures from Counting Dead Women suggest there were almost 50 suspected in that time. Refuge, the charity that runs the National Domestic Abuse helpline, has been keen to learn the lessons from the first lockdown and has published a dossier on what needs to change to prevent the same things from happening again.

What’s next?

The second reading of the Domestic Abuse Bill took place in the House of Lords on 5 January 2021. Amendments will be gathered and then published in the ‘marshalled list’. Updated lists are then produced before the start of each day of committee stage. All suggested amendments have to be considered and members can discuss an issue for as long as they want. No time limits can be imposed. When the committee stage is complete the bill moves to report stage, for further scrutiny before the third (and final) reading.

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Annabel Reeves is a Trainee Solicitor located in Manchesterin our Trainee Solicitors department

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