top of page
  • Writer's pictureChloe Squires

The Cost-of-Living Crisis and Domestic Abuse in the UK

Trigger Warning: this article contains discussion of domestic abuse, which may be disturbing to some readers.

The number of adults experiencing domestic abuse in Britain rose markedly during the Covid-19 pandemic. Regulations implemented by the Government advised all members of the UK to stay at home, but, for many, home is not a safe place. These restrictions saw mandatory social isolation, the closure of workplaces and schools, and a 65 percent increase in calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline. Research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council found that social distancing measures inherently changed micro-level human interactions by forcing individuals and families to spend more time at home. However, when lockdown regulations were lifted, rates of domestic abuse did not ease. Today, the number of adults experiencing domestic abuse in the UK still has not returned to pre-pandemic levels. Rather, against the backdrop of a second national crisis, adults experiencing domestic abuse face new barriers due to the rising cost of living.

The Cost-of-Living Crisis

According to the Office for National Statistics, 87 percent of adults in Great Britain reported an increase in their cost of living from August to September 2022. To offset the serious adverse effects of the financial crisis on households, the government has put provisions in place to alleviate financial pressure on the general population. Measures, such as the Energy Price Guarantee, are blanket-like initiatives which are equally applied to all households in the UK, but there has been no support specifically tailored for low-income households.

The lack of targeted support has raised concerns that some low-income households will be forced to turn to crime to make ends meet. HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary Andy Cooke expects we will "invariably see a rise in crime", including shoplifting, burglary, vehicle theft, insurance fraud, scamming, countryside theft, and electricity theft. There are further concerns that more children and young people will be drawn into county lines drug gangs, and women could fall victim to sexual exploitation. Though there are considerations of how the cost-of-living crisis may change the criminal landscape and those who partake in it, measures to protect individuals already living in dangerous environments, such as domestic violence, are being scaled back.

Domestic Violence

Women’s Aid defines domestic abuse as "an incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and violent behaviour, including sexual". It is a form of abuse which can manifest in many ways, one of which can be economic abuse whereby financial assets are leveraged as a method of manipulation and control. Often, this kind of control can make it incredibly difficult to leave an abusive environment by creating financial barriers which can include being prevented from working or having limited or no access to bank accounts.

On top of existing barriers to leaving a relationship and dealing with the trauma of domestic abuse, individuals now face a new set of barriers when considering whether they can leave such damaging environments. Due to the rising cost of living, 73 percent of participants in recent research carried out by Women’s Aid said that the cost-of-living crisis had either prevented them from leaving or made it harder for them to leave their abuser. The reasons for this include the immediate costs of leaving (67 percent), not being able to afford ongoing living costs on a single income (69 percent), fear of getting into debt, inability to financially support children, and governmental benefits not stretching far enough.

National provisions in place to support individuals and families leaving abusive homes have been impacted by economic hardship too. Food banks, charities, and refuges have all been of central importance in supporting individuals to resettle in a new environment. Due to donors cutting costs where possible, food bank donations have decreased by 45 percent, meaning that two thirds of food banks may have to reduce their food parcels or turn people away. However, during this time, demand has increased. Women’s Aid recently found that 61 percent of their beneficiaries are concerned about being able to afford food, and 24 percent say they need to access food banks.

Charities such as Your Sanctuary have explained that there are difficulties filling volunteer posts that have been exacerbated by the current financial climate. Many volunteers now have to work longer hours or multiple jobs in order to make ends meet, and others are using their time to look after grandchildren to offset childcare costs. The cost-of-living crisis means that many volunteers simply cannot afford to give their time away for free anymore.

Short-staffed charities have been further impacted by the rising cost of bills. Hestia has reported a £5,000 increase in the cost of rehoming domestic abuse survivors but, due to charities such as refuges being excluded from cost-reduction initiatives, including the Warm Home Discount; targeted governmental support has not been provided to such institutions.

Legal Developments

Even before the current economic decline, domestic abuse laws have faced criticism for letting down the individuals that they are designed to protect. A letter written to The Guardian explains that domestic violence injunctions were strengthened in 1996 when judges were mandated to attach powers of arrest to the injunction. A reported breach of threatened or actual violence would be met with immediate arrest and potentially two years' custody for breaking a judge's order. When the breach of an injunction became a criminal offence in 2004, the standard sentence for breaching an injunction became a community service order that may be served back in the family home. Rightfully, domestic abuse victims and their children should not face more trauma by becoming homeless when leaving abusers, and should, when needed, have legal support to avoid such eventualities.

The Legal Aid, Sentencing, and Punishment of Offenders Act was introduced in May 2012 and sought to make legal support and representation accessible for individuals unable to pay for necessary legal advice by imposing capital and income limits on applicants for civil legal aid. Legal aid has faced many financial cuts, the latest of which have taken place amid the cost-of-living crisis. These cutbacks impact low-income households who need access to legal aid, and legal companies that specialise in this service. In response to this, barristers have claimed the current legal aid rates have resulted in a 28 percent fall in their income in real terms over the past 20 years, with young barristers earning as little as £12,200 a year.

A decade after its royal assent, the House of Commons Library reviewed the impact of the Act. The report found that, in real terms, spending for legal aid in domestic abuse cases fell dramatically from 2012 to 2021. The Commons Library also calculated that over the past ten years, the proportion of domestic abuse cases funded by legal aid had fallen from 75 percent to 47 percent. Without the cutbacks, the Commons Library forecasted that 41,000 more people would have been eligible for legal aid in domestic abuse cases. In order to offset the impact of this on the lives of individuals in dangerous living environments in the UK, Women’s Aid is calling for better provision of legal services, fairer access to legal aid, interest-free loans for legal support where necessary, an emergency domestic abuse fund and energy cost relief for all seeking refuge during the cost-of-living crisis.

Strikes in the legal domain pose questions for those who are living in violent households, seeking a way out, or looking for legal support to begin the process. Cuts to the services which have prompted these strikes impact the number of people who even get to this point. The impact of the cost-of-living crisis is multi-layered and far-reaching; the most urgent of the issues posed by this crisis is the number of adults and children living in unsafe environments with reduced support systems.

It is estimated that the cost-of-living crisis is currently affecting 46 million people in Britain, but individuals and families experiencing domestic abuse are especially vulnerable to the current financial pressures. The failure to safeguard those living in unsafe environments highlights deep-rooted issues surrounding the disproportionate impact that economic hardship has on low-income households, and the insufficient support for domestic violence victims and related funding infrastructure in the UK.

The St Andrews Law Review recognises the important work that each of the following organisations do to help survivors of domestic abuse, and encourages its readers to support them if possible: Refuge, Women's Aid, Hestia, and Your Sanctuary.

bottom of page