The Domestic Abuse Act: what we need to know

Article describes some of the changes and new provisions brought about by the Domestic...
Created On: 11 June 2021   (Last updated: 21 June 2021)

Article describes some of the changes and new provisions brought about by the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, and affirms why domestic abuse is (or ought to be) a key consideration for the substance use field. 

The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 was signed into law on 29th April 2021. It aims to raise awareness and understanding about the impact of domestic abuse on victims and their families, improve the effectiveness of the justice system in providing protection for victims of domestic abuse and bringing perpetrators to justice, and strengthen support for victims of abuse by statutory agencies.

Marking its introduction, Victoria Atkins MP, Minister for Safeguarding, said:

“Domestic abuse is an abhorrent crime perpetrated on victims and their families by those who should love and care for them. This landmark Bill will help transform the response to domestic abuse, helping to prevent offending, protect victims and ensure they have the support they need.”

Keen observers will have noticed, however, that it took four years for this legislation to come to fruition. It was first announced in the Queen’s speech back in 2017, but was unfortunately delayed by events such as Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic, and two general elections. In fact, these setbacks meant that England was the last of the home nation countries to introduce legislation on domestic abuse (see links to the other pieces of legislation below):

What does the Domestic Abuse Act say?

The UK Government’s Domestic Abuse Act emphasises that domestic abuse is more than physical violence; it is a pattern of abuse in an intimate personal or familial relationship, which can include physical or sexual abuse, violent or threatening behaviour, economic abuse, psychological or emotional abuse, and controlling or coercive behaviour.

The inclusion of controlling and coercive behaviour in the Act’s definition of domestic abuse was significant. Controlling and coercive behaviour was made a crime in 2015, in part because it was not being recognised, or responded to, as a form of domestic abuse. According to Women’s Aid, common examples of controlling and coercive behaviour include: isolating you from friends and family; repeatedly putting you down; monitoring you via online communication tools or spyware; depriving you access to support services; and taking control over aspects of your everyday life, such as where you can go, who you can see, what you can wear and when you can sleep.

As well as providing a statutory definition of domestic abuse for the first time, the Act: cemented the role of a Domestic Abuse Commissioner; introduced a new domestic abuse protection notice aimed at stopping further incidents of abuse; protected victims from in-person cross-examination in the criminal courts; created a new offence of non-fatal strangulation or suffocation; prohibited doctors and nurses in general practice from charging a victim of domestic abuse for a letter to support an application for legal aid; and placed a duty on local authorities in England to provide accommodation-based support to victims of domestic abuse and their children in refuges and other safe accommodation.

Although the Domestic Abuse Commissioner was appointed back in 2019, the Act has now established this office in law, set out the Commissioner’s functions and powers, and specified a duty to put together an advisory board of between six and 10 members, including people with academic expertise in domestic abuse, people who have worked with victims of domestic abuse, and people with experience in sectors including social care, health care, policy and criminal justice.

What is the role of substance use in domestic abuse?

Drugs and alcohol were not mentioned in the legislation, but the overlap between domestic abuse and substance use problems is sufficient for us to know that domestic abuse is an important issue for drug and alcohol practitioners, researchers, commissioners and policymakers, and therefore so too is this new legislation.

Substance use problems are much more common among victims of domestic abuse than the general population, and may develop after abuse has started to cope with stress, anxiety, depression and repeated trauma. When a victim has problems with drugs or alcohol, these can be used by a perpetrator to exert control, for example by:

  • blaming the victim (e.g. “You drove me to it”);
  • threatening to call social services;
  • preventing access to healthcare services, including drug and alcohol treatment.

There is also a strong link between domestic abuse and perpetrators’ substance use. Research analysed by AVA, a UK charity working to end violence and abuse, suggests that both alcohol and drugs can increase the likelihood and severity of domestic abuse. Alcohol appears to be particularly important in escalating existing conflict; a conservative estimate from the 2013/14 Crime Survey for England and Wales suggests that perpetrators had been drinking prior to committing physical domestic abuse in around 36% of cases.

Most domestic abuse incidents, however, do not take place when the perpetrator was drinking or using drugs, and it is important to bear in mind that conflict and physical abuse are only part of the picture; domestic abuse is a pattern of abuse, and as the new legislation reminds, can include physical or sexual abuse, violent or threatening behaviour, economic abuse, psychological or emotional abuse, and controlling or coercive behaviour.

Read the SSA’s collection of 25 interesting articles, as well as academic- and practice-facing literature, to mark the introduction of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021.

by Natalie Davies


The opinions expressed in this post reflect the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the opinions or official positions of the SSA.

The SSA does not endorse or guarantee the accuracy of the information in external sources or links and accepts no responsibility or liability for any consequences arising from the use of such information.

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