The laws surrounding domestic assault, abuse and violence are in a state of transition; the UK Government has launched a number of initiatives in the past 10 years which are changing the way domestic cases are dealt with, both during police investigation and court proceedings.

Specific offences for domestic assault, abuse or violence do not currently exist, as each is attributed to a different area of criminal law. For instance, an arrest for an act of domestic assault would be charged as one of three assault charges (common assault, ABH or GBH).

However, in 2015, new legislation was introduced which criminalised the use of “controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship” through the Serious Crime Act 2015 (section 76), which was introduced to prevent emotional or psychological abuse in domestic scenarios.

There are currently a number of conflicting definitions of domestic abuse, including between the Government’s adopted definition and the legal definition provided by the Civil Prosecution Service. It is important to know the differences to know precisely where you stand in incidents involving domestic assault.

What is domestic assault?

Although domestic assault is not an offence in itself, it is, instead, applied to the most relevant category of offence, e.g. assault, a specific sexual offence or an offence described by the new serious crime act.

A domestic offence is characterised by the relationship of the involved parties, this could, for example, be between family members, partners or historic partners where coercive, controlling or threatening behaviour is proven to have been exhibited. Family members are considered to be both direct and indirect relatives, including parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, children and grandparents, including those indirectly related, i.e. through a familial marriage or through an adoption.

What are the types of domestic abuse?

Physical abuse

Punching, kicking, use of a weapon or any other violent act that disrupts the comfort or health of a complainant is considered to be an assault. When this has occurred within a domestic environment the Courts, Magistrates’ and Police are instructed to follow special guidelines to reduce the emotional trauma and ‘messiness’ of cases which often affect children and other family members.

The severity of an offence arising from physical abuse will depend on the level of injuries sustained, which are described by the varying degrees of assault. If certain characteristics are found, for example physical abuse occurred over a sustained period of time and/or repeated, then the case may be ‘aggravated’ – showing a higher level of culpability of the offender – which could impact the category of sentences available to prosecutors.

In 2005, specialist domestic violence courts (SDVCs) were introduced to cater to the emotionally traumatic nature of domestic abuse cases, whereby Magistrates’ are specially trained to review cases and action the most appropriate verdicts and sentences. This increases the complexity of domestic abuse cases and heightens the need for specialist advice within the field of domestic violence.

Sexual abuse

Acts of sexual abuse are categorised under the most relevant category of offence, for example rape or indecent assault, if deemed appropriate during police investigations. However, guidelines specifically outline the different processes when an offence is said to have been committed in a domestic environment. For this reason, the legal guidelines suggest that prosecutors and magistrates’ critically scrutinise the actions of the offender to determine motives and assess their level of culpability (blame). This is why there needs to be a specialist defence lawyer to also argue and protect the interests of the accused person, only by doing this can there be a balanced and fair approach.

Sexual abuse cases are viewed very seriously, and are therefore are usually heard by the Crown Court, but the nature of individual cases and resulting police investigations will determine whether this is the most appropriate course of action.

Psychological, emotional & financial abuse

The new Serious Crime Act, introduced in 2015, now specifically prohibits the use of coercive or controlling behaviour within a familial environment. A wide variety of psychological, emotional and financial abuse are now clearly addressed in law which means the following acts are prohibited under the new law:

  • Reading private emails, texts or social media messages
  • Taking control over aspects of someone’s life, such as what they wear and when they can leave their property
  • Withholding money or preventing someone from earning money

Investigations into this new offence will often involve the collection of evidence such as social media records, text messages and interactions with support services, which means that investigations will almost certainly be intrusive.

What should you do if you are accused of domestic assault?

Police investigations into domestic assault charges will always be emotionally involved, intrusive and potentially very messy, particularly where children are involved. It’s vital that you act upon specialist advice from the very first instance you are aware an investigation may arise, as due to the nature of cases it is easy to act emotionally or jeopardise your legal standing through misjudgement, which could reduce your ability to achieve a positive outcome.

The Police or Court’s will often impose restrictions on who and where an accused person can go. Sometimes these conditions are imposed before a court date has even been arranged and from the point when a person has been arrested, sometimes they are imposed even when the “complainant” does not want the restrictions to be imposed. In this case, it is possible for applications to be made to the police or court for these restrictions and conditions to be varied or removed. Specialist legal advice is vital in these circumstances.

When a domestic violence case finally comes to court, the delay between the first court date and the trial date can be very short. This has its advantages as the cases are dealt with quickly.

However, it can mean that there isn’t always much time for the case to be prepared. For someone in this position, it is vital to have a solicitor and legal team that specialises in these cases and can start preparing the case quickly and efficiently. Sometimes, legal aid may be available when the case has come to court. However, prior to the Court case, if funding is in place, we can start to prepare the case immediately to ensure and maximise the best outcome is achieved.

If you need help defending yourself from an accusation of domestic abuse, speak to an expert criminal defence solicitor as soon as you can, ideally from the outset or as soon as possible If you want a response within 30 minutes*, consult a domestic violence specialist at Lawtons now.