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New legislation proposed to help end violence against women in 2017

30th March 2017

Legal papers

From Theresa May’s proposed Domestic Violence and Abuse Act to the Istanbul Convention, the UK is considering and welcoming numerous pieces of legislation to help end violence against women.

On average, two women are killed every week in England and Wales by a current or former partner; one in four women will experience domestic violence in their lifetimes. With domestic abuse still prevalent in the UK, charities and campaigners have called on the government to focus on these key issues facing women and girls. And it’s not just domestic abuse; one in five women will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetimes and 60,000 girls under the age of 15 are at high risk of FGM every year in England and Wales.

With a wide range of Bills progressing through Parliament, Law Absolute takes a look at the new UK legislation aiming to tackle violence against women in 2017.

The Istanbul Convention

In June 2012, the UK government pledged to implement the most comprehensive legal framework to end violence against women and girls. The Istanbul Convention, introduced by the Council of Europe in 2011, was signed by 39 member states and ratified (established) by many including the Netherlands, Slovenia, Finland and Turkey. The UK, however, has yet to ratify the convention, almost five years after signing it.

Rachel Nye, co-director of the IC Change campaign, said: “The Istanbul Convention is often referred to as the most comprehensive legal framework for tackling violence against women and girls. Practically, this is because it recognises violence against women needs a whole-systems approach, with complimentary functions which strengthen each other. These include measures to: prevent abuse, to protect women who have experienced abuse, to prosecute perpetrators and to monitor the situation. This approach acknowledges that inequality is at the root of gender-based violence.”

Charities and campaign groups have condemned the government for delaying the ratification which would protect women’s refuge housing and domestic abuse services. Liz McKean, a director at Amnesty International, told The Independent: “The UK puts forward that it is a champion of women’s and girl’s rights, yet we’re not one of the first tranche to ratify a convention like this. The fact that we’ve not ratified this sends mixed messages.”

Dr Eilidh Whiteford, an SNP MP, put forward a Bill to ratify the convention in 2016. It received cross-party support, but Conservative MP Philip Davies sought to derail the process by “talking out” the bill in Parliament, a process known as filibustering. The anti-feminism MP spoke for over an hour at the reading on December 16, describing the bill as ‘sexist’ and ‘discriminatory against men’. Davies’ attempt failed and the bill passed with 135 votes to 2.

On February 24, 2017, the Bill passed its third reading and is now moving through the stages in the House of Lords. Rachel Nye of IC Change added: “In campaigning it can be difficult to explain the Istanbul Convention in a sentence, as the convention is not only built along a pathway of interconnected mechanisms to end violence against women, but also to cover a range of forms of violence – including domestic abuse, rape and sexual assault, FGM, forced marriage and so-called honour based violence.

“Whilst the passage of the IC Bill has made good progress placing the ratification of the Istanbul Convention back on the UK government’s agenda, it is important to note this is not the final step. June 8th will mark 5 years since the government signed the convention – and we need the government to comply with the IC Bill and provide a clear timetable for ratification. As part of this we still need the UK to have domestic legislation on extra-territorial application before ratification. We hope the new domestic violence law announced by the Prime Minister will allow for progress on this in England and Wales.”

Theresa May’s proposed Domestic Violence and Abuse Act

Prime Minister Theresa May has announced she will introduce a new law to increase prosecutions for domestic violence and provide more support for victims.

As Home Secretary, Theresa May introduced laws criminalising coercive control, domestic violence protection orders and a disclosure scheme allowing people to ask police whether their partner has a history of abuse offences, named Clare's Law. According to a recent report in The Guardian, the Prime Minister said it was a “key personal priority” to transform the way the UK thinks about tackling domestic violence. She said: “I believe that the plans I have announced today have the potential to completely transform the way we think about and tackle domestic violence and abuse.

“There are thousands of people who are suffering at the hands of abusers, often isolated and unaware of the options and support available to them to end it. Given the central importance of victim evidence to support prosecutions in this area, raising public awareness – as well as consolidating the law – will prove crucial.”

The latest announcement received praise from charities such as Women’s Aid. Polly Neate, chief executive at the charity, said: “It is very welcome news for survivors of domestic abuse that the Prime Minister is planning to legislate a step change in response to domestic abuse. There is scope to make the legal framework surrounding domestic abuse clearer and more comprehensive; survivors desperately need an approach across all agencies that genuinely responds to their needs, and helps them to truly recover.”

Those in legal positions should be aware of this proposed legislation as it progresses.

Compulsory sex and relationships education (SRE) in schools

Classroom

In February, the Government announced sex and relationships education (SRE) will be part of the national curriculum in primary and secondary schools across the UK. The amendment to the Children and Social Work Bill aims to educate young people on sex and relationships, same-sex relationships, sexual consent, sexual violence and domestic violence, in the hope that they will learn how to have healthy relationships in the future.

Following the announcement, the End Violence Against Women (EVAW) campaign released a statement including its own research findings, which show that girls face “intolerable levels of harassment” in schools every day. Co-director Rachel Krys, said: “The need for RSE (SRE) for all children and young people has become urgent because of what we know about abuse and harassment in young people’s lives – including girls and young women being disproportionately subjected to relationship abuse, sexual violence and harassment, sexual exploitation and abuse online.

“The rapid development of smart phones, social media and online porn make the need for compulsory RSE (SRE) more urgent than ever. This is a real step forward in ending violence against women and girls and we commend the Government for listening to experts and responding.”

The Everyday Sexism project, led by Laura Bates, is a catalogue of instances of sexism sent in by women. The project aims to highlight gender inequality and record every day cases of sexism. Laura said: “Thousands of girls have reported experiences to the Everyday Sexism Project of being sexually harassed, assaulted and even raped while at school. From being rated out of 10 in the school corridor to being ‘groped’ in the classroom, such behaviour has become to so common place that many describe it as the norm. Against a backdrop of often misogynistic online pornography, we hear again and again from young people who are confused about sex and sexual violence.”

Law to protect domestic violence victims in court

Domestic violence victims will no longer face the threat of being interrogated by a former partner in court under proposed legislation. Justice Secretary Liz Truss ordered an emergency review into the practice, according to a recent article.

Currently, violent abusers are not allowed to cross-examine their former partners in criminal cases, but they are allowed to in family courts, leaving victims vulnerable to the possibility of being cross-examined by their violent ex-partners. Liz Truss branded the practice as “humiliating and appalling”. Zoe Dronfield, who runs ‘I Want My Mummy’ (IWMM), a support group for domestic violence victims going through the family court system, told The Guardian: “I speak to hundreds of women who have been subjected to cross-examination by a perpetrator of violence and abuse, this is now a massive problem. The family court processes currently facilitate abuse as opposed to helping the very people it should be helping.”

The proposed new measures within the Prison and Courts Bill would give greater protection for victims of domestic abuse, rape and sexual violence. The Bill passed its second reading on March 20th and will continue to move through the parliamentary stages.

Research by charity Women’s Aid suggests a quarter of women in family court proceedings have been cross-examined by an abusive former partner. The proposed legislation was a victory for Women’s Aid, who led the Child First campaign to stop avoidable deaths and make sure children are put first in family courts. In response to the new legislation announcement, Polly Neate, chief executive of the charity, said: “This was a key demand of the courageous survivors who have spoken out for the Women’s Aid Child First campaign. It is an enormous step forward.

“Women’s Aid thanks the government – especially the Ministry of Justice Secretary Liz Truss, for acting so swiftly to find a way to end the agony survivors face when cross-examined by their abuser. In this at least, justice has been done. It is clear that there is no place for this abhorrent practice in 2017.”