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 change[d] micro-level human interactions, as they force people 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 has still not returned to post-pandemic levels. Instead, against 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 increased cost of living from August to September 2022. To offset the adverse effects of the financial crisis on households, the government has put provisions in place to alleviate financial pressure. For example, the Energy Price Guarantee applies to all UK households. Still, there needs to be more support for low-income families.
The lack of targeted support has raised concerns that some low-income households will be forced to commit crimes to make ends meet. HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary Andy Cooke expects we will "invariably see a rise in crime", with further reports suggesting this may include crimes such as 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.
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. This kind of control can often make it incredibly difficult to leave an abusive environment by creating financial barriers, including being prevented from working or having limited or no access to bank accounts.
Women's Aid explains, “On top of existing barriers to leaving a relationship and dealing with the trauma of domestic abuse, survivors tell us that they now have a set of new barriers to face when considering whether they can escape abuse”. Due to the rising cost of living, 73 percent of participants in recent research 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’. The reasons for this include the ‘immediate costs of leaving’ (67 percent) and ‘not being able to afford ongoing living costs on a single income’ (69 percent). Other concerns include fear of debt, inability to support children financially, and governmental benefits not stretching far enough.
National provisions in place to support individuals and families leaving abusive homes are also impacted by economic hardship. Food banks, charities, and refuges have all been of central importance in helping individuals to resettle in a new environment. Attributed to 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 with Women’s Aid finding that 61 percent of their beneficiaries are concerned about ‘being able to afford food’, and 24 percent say they ‘needed to access food banks’.
Charities such as Your Sanctuary have explained that there are difficulties filling volunteer posts exacerbated by the current financial climate. Many volunteers are having to work longer hours or multiple jobs 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 for free anymore.
The rising cost of bills is further impacting short-staffed charities. Hestia has reported a £5,000 increase in homing domestic abuse survivors. Still, as charities such as refuges are excluded from cost-reduction initiatives, including the Warm Home Discount, targeted governmental support is not in place.
Even before the current economic decline, domestic abuse laws have been criticised for letting down the individuals they are designed to protect. A letter written to The Guardian explains that domestic violence injunctions were ‘massively strengthened in 1996 when judges were mandated to attach powers of arrest’ to the injunction. The Guardian reports goes on to explain that:
“If a victim reported that the injunction had been breached by a threat of – or actual – violence, police had to immediately arrest the respondent and bring him before a senior judge the next working day to show why he should not face a possible two years’ custody for contempt, namely breaking a judge’s order”.
Under current regulations, 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 impose capital and income limits for applicants for civil legal aid”. Legal aid has faced many financial cuts, the latest of which occurred amid the cost-of-living crisis. The 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 one barrister claiming that ‘she earned £7,000 more per year as a coffee barista than she does now’ as a barrister.
A decade after its royal assent, the Commons Library reviewed the impact of the Bill. The report found that ‘real-terms spending on civil legal aid for domestic abuse cases had fallen by 37% from 2010-11 to 2020-21’.
The House of Commons Library also calculated that over the past 10 years, the proportion of domestic abuse cases funded by legal aid had fallen from 75 percent to 47 percent. On top of this, the report found that without cutbacks ‘41,000 more people would have been eligible for legal aid in domestic abuse cases’. To off-set the impact of this on the line of individuals in dangerous living environments in the UK, Women’s Aid is calling better provision of legal services, including fairer access to legal aid; interest-free loans for legal support where necessary; an emergency Domestic Abuse Fund and Reduced energy costs for all refuges during the cost-of-living crisis.
Strikes in the legal domain pose questions for those living in violent households, seeking a way out or 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 in the criminal atmosphere is multi-layered and far-reaching. Perhaps the most urgent of these issues is the number of adults and children living in unsafe environments with reduced support systems.
With the effects of the pandemic still ongoing and the cost-of-living crisis yet to peak, it is estimated that the cost-of-living crisis is affecting 46 million people in Britain, but individuals and families experiencing domestic abuse are even more vulnerable to the current financial pressures. The failure to safeguard those living in unsafe environments highlights deep-rooted issues surrounding the disproportionate impact of economic hardship on low-income households, and insufficient domestic violence support and 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.